The concept of “digital humanities”

I will start by delving into an issue that has shown to be heavily contentious: I don’t think that the digital humanities constitute a new field of enquiry, one that is significantly different to good old humanities as we know them. I may be wrong, or you may disagree with me, so help yourself to the comments section. I will be glad to discuss, and I may as well be persuaded to the contrary of what I state below.

In a well-known interview, Kathleen Fitzpatrick [Lopez et al. 2015] states that digital humanities

…[is] bringing the tools and techniques of digital media to bear on traditional humanistic questions. But it’s also bringing humanistic modes of inquiry to bear on digital media.

According to this, digital humanities are about doing humanities by using digital technologies, or about digital technologies. Let’s explore both options.

On the first sense, I would argue that any current scientific research endeavour must necessarily employ digital technologies. In today’s world, you cannot be an active researcher without digital technologies. In fact, we do not hear about “digital biology” or “digital physics”, because the “digital” aspect is taken for granted in these disciplines. Similarly, I would think that you need digital technologies to carry out research in the humanities, and there is no way around it. In this regard, I argue that the “digital” qualifier in “digital humanities” of the first kind does not contribute much to the meaning of the expression.

This also resonates with the statement of [Huggett 2013] that

[A]rchaeological scholarship more generally is already digital in many respects.

Within the humanities, archaeology is probably the most digital and technophile discipline. Still, it may be the case that the mass adoption of digital technologies in archaeology is probably under way and far from being finalised. And, if this is so, the adoption of digital technologies by other disciplines in the humanities should be even less advanced. This means that certain divide exists between approaches that have been fully “digitalised” and those which have not. For example, there are digital excavation recording techniques as opposed to “analogue” paper-based ones; and there are digital approaches to text analysis in literature as opposed to other done “by hand”. However, the fact that different techniques or methodologies have been “digitalised” to different degrees is probably the case in every discipline, humanities or not. For this reason, the “digital” qualifier in “digital humanities” may make sense in a practical sense when certain research practices are born in mind, but makes no sense from a science-theoretical point of view. In other words, the “digital humanities” are not a new field of enquiry or a significantly different way of doing research. On the contrary, and in the first sense of Fitzpatrick’s definition, the digital humanities are not essentially different to just the humanities.

On the second sense of the definition, “digital humanities” are about doing humanistic research about the digital. In this regard, digital technologies are seen as the object of study of the different humanistic disciplines,. In fact, it is possible to do anthropology, history or archaeology of the digital. In this sense, the term “digital humanities” should be rather rephrased as “humanities of the digital” to make this clearer.

If this is so, then the digital humanities constitute an anthropology/history/archaeology of digitally-mediated human activities, where these disciplines are practiced “as usual”, but applied to a new object of study, namely, the digital. This has happened before without much fuss. For example, the history of the industrial revolutions only became possible once industrial artefacts appeared and became popular; and the anthropology of urban tribes was made possible only once urban tribes existed. We don’t speak about industrial history or urban anthropology as distinct disciplines to history and anthropology, but of history of the industry or anthropology of the cities. Similarly, “digital humanities”, in this second sense, really means “humanities of the digital”.

For these reasons, I argue that the term “digital humanities”, as usually employed, is at least ambiguous, and very often vacuous.

I admit that Fitzpatrick’s characterisation of the digital humanities may not be shared by everyone, and should not be taken as an authorised source over other equally valid ones. However, I believe that the analysis in the previous paragraphs can be applied to other conceptions of the digital humanities that often appear in this community, since more often than not they are vastly overlapping and at times almost equivalent.

So what, you may ask. Well, if the digital humanities are not a significantly distinct new discipline, then we should perhaps reconsider the existence of university departments or research centres devoted to it; rather, we should expect that existing humanities department embrace digital technologies without renaming, rebranding or repurposing themselves. Similarly, we should question tertiary education programmes offering specific content in digital humanities; rather, we should expect that any education programme incorporates digital tools and techniques as a routine practice. Also, we should rethink grant calls that explicitly request digital humanities proposals; instead, we should expect that calls in the humanities keep trying to address relevant humanistic research questions while allowing for, but not requiring, the wide application of digital technologies.

Otherwise, we would be removing the focus from the humanities, which determine the actual research questions being made, and shifting it to the circumstantial fact that some problems may be tackled by the application of certain digital technologies. This situation constitutes a sort of instrumental fetishism, by which practice often focuses on how results are obtained, rather than what results are obtained or what research questions are being asked. I have called this instrumental fetishism, and [Huggett 2012] talks about “fetishising technology”. This is evident, for example, by looking at the papers presented at conferences such as Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology (CAA); a quick survey of the CAA 2014 proceedings volume [Giligny et al. 2014] suggests that 56 out of 72 papers (77%) emphasise the usage of specific tools or techniques over research questions or outcomes. This is far from being a representative corpus of data from which we could draw significant conclusions, and is provided only for the sake of illustration. However, it coincides with my personal experience as a reviewer of academic papers on digital archaeology (about 25 papers per year for the last 8 years), which suggests that technological adoption is often made without clear selection criteria but rather based on inertia or fashion; in other words, many authors seem to worry more about what digital technology can do for them than about what it should do.

Someone (I don’t remember who) once said that a technology has truly succeeded once it has disappeared, that is, become invisible and indistinguishable from non-technology. Digital humanities will have succeeded once the “digital” part is de-emphasised and taken from granted.

References

  1. Giligny, F., Djindjian, F., Costa, L., Moscati, P. & Robert, S. (eds.). 2015. 21st Century Archaeology. Concepts, methods and tools. Proceedings of the 42nd Annual Conference on Computer Applications and Quantitative Methods in Archaeology. Archaeopress. [Link]
  2. Huggett, J. 2012. Thinking through Time and Space: The Implications of GIS in Archaeology. At “Les Dynamiques Spatio-temporelles en Archéologie”, Tours, France. [Link]
  3. Huggett, J. 2013. Disciplinary Issues: Challenging the Research and Practice of Computer Applications in Archaeology. In G. Earl, T. Sly, A. Chrysanthi, P. Murrieta-Flores, C. Papadopoulos, I. Romanowska & D. Wheatley (eds.), “Archaeology in the Digital Era”13-24. Amsterdam University Press. [Link]
  4. Lopez, A., Rowland, F., & Fitzpatrick, K. 2015. On Scholarly Communication and the Digital Humanities: An Interview with Kathleen Fitzpatrick. In “In the Library with the Lead Pipe”, 14 January 2015. [Link]
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