Digital Humanities Defined

As I’m writing this, I’m on my way back from the conference “(Digital) Humanities Revisited – Challenges and Opportunities in the Digital Age,” which was organized by the Volkswagen Foundation and which took place from December 5 to 7, 2013 in Herrenhausen Palace in Hannover.

Organization and catering were excellent, Herrenhausen Palace is a perfect conference venue, the program was excellent, and I got to meet many great colleagues. There is one thing, however, that increasingly irritates me. It doesn’t have anything to do with this conference, but it is rather a characteristic of the field called “digital humanities.”

Whenever this field is approached from a humanities angle, it seems to be unavoidable that there are extended discussions about what the digital humanities are, whether they are a discipline of their own or rather a field, a subfield, a place, a set of methodes, a community of practice, none of the above or everything. There is a whole book on “Defining Digital Humanities” (it goes without saying that it does not actually aim to define “digital humanities”), and some people simply say that it is sufficient that you believe you’re doing digital humanities for you to do it (see How Do You Define DH?).

If you’ve got a humanities background, you probably just thought that this is because it is so darned hard to define “digital humanities,” and that, yes, maybe we should really first discuss what we expect from a definition before attempting a discussion. On the other hand, if you’re coming from a more technical background, you probably wonder what this is all about, because you’re not aware of such discussions in your discipline—or at least not to this extent.

Personally, I find these discussions about the “true nature” of digital humanities fruitless and even counterproductive. These discussions take up valuable time that could be spent more productively. Don’t get me wrong, though; I do think we need to define “digital humanities,” not least because the term has already found its way into the vocabulary of funders and administrators and will thus have an impact on funding policies, department structures, and jobs. However, I strongly oppose definitions—and the accompanying discussions—that load up the term “digital humanities” with unreasonable assumptions, mistaking effects that are contingent at best for intrinsic, defining characteristics, ascribing all kinds of properties to the digital humanities. Examples of such assumptions are that the digital humanities have an “ethos of sharing,” are an “opportunity to tear down academic walls” and to “revolutionize the humanities,” etc.

I also oppose these discussions, because, if you know a bit about how the humanities function, loading up digital humanities with these allegedly intrinsinc positive properties also serves to denigrate everything that is not deemed to be digital humanities—in other words: It’s about pigeonholing, about “us” and “them,” “in” and “out.” This is counterproductive and bears the strong risk of “self-ghettoization,” as Christoph Cornelißen put it during the final panel discussion of the Herrenhausen conference.

It’s not surprising that such pigeonhole attitudes often insinuate that the digital humanities may be a separate discipline. Not only would this actively promote self-ghettoization and put up new academic walls, but it is also pointless from a research perspective: on what research questions would this discipline work? I can’t see any. I would claim that this is because the digital humanities simply are not a discipline in themselves, and the term rather describes a set of methods used within existing disciplines. This means that the digital humanities are actually not as disruptive as some like to postulate. In fact, there is a clear continuity: history, Egyptology, literary studies, etc. still have their historical, Egyptological, literary, etc. research questions—no matter what methods you’re using to investigate them. And this is precisely why, as Manfred Nießen pointed out during the panel discussion, there are no “digital particle physics” of “digital sociology”—these disciplines simply use computational methods and tools without assuming that this has somehow “magical” effects on their field.

Before presenting my definition of “digital humanities,” I’d like to briefly point out that this term is somewhat unfortunate. The main issue is that “digital” may refer to different things: it can mean the use of machine-readable data or electronic devices and programs, or it could be used as opposed to “analog.” In the latter sense, “analog” and “digital” would have to be taken to really stand for “qualitative” vs. “quantitative” or “vague and context-dependend” vs. “deterministic”—and none of these readings necessarily imply the use of computers. The fuzzy usage of the term “digital” is one reason why those discussions on panels or on Twitter are often unsatisfactory, as many people tend to mix these readings all the time. “Computational humanities” would, in my opinion, be a better term, however, I guess we’re now stuck with the term “digital humanites.”

Now, how do I define “digital humanities”?

In a narrow sense, “digital humanities” refers to the application of quantitative, computer-based methods for humanities research, usually complementing traditional qualitative methods (note that this definition involves both readings of “digital”). The important point is that it is humanities research, i.e., you’re applying these methods to answer a humanities research question.

In a wider sense, it may also refer to the application of computer-based tools in humanities research (note that this definition does not require the use of quantitative methods). For example, creating a digital edition is not digital humanities in the narrow sense (because it does not use quantitative methods), but it is in the wider sense. I think this extension is useful, because the creation of digital resources is a prerequisite for digital humanities in the narrow sense.

In any case, digital humanities research—like all humanities research—must be judged according to the standards of the respective field or fields. In other words, there is only good and bad research, and nobody should be given a break just because they used a particular set of methods (regardless of whether the methods are new or established).

Also note that humanities research on digital media, Internet phenomena, and the like is not per se “digital humanities.” These are simply topics in historical, sociological, philosophical, etc. research and do not imply any use of a particular method.

What these definitions do not cover—and this is intentional—is research in computer science, computational linguistics, and related fields on methods for use in digital humanities research, e.g., natural language processing for historical texts. While clearly related to digital humanities, such research is clearly something different, as it does not aim to answer humanities research questions but rather research questions from computer science, computational linguistics, etc. I would suggest to revive the term “humanities computing” or to coin a new term, such as “humanities informatics” (paralleling “business informatics”), to make clear the different goals.

At a digital humanities conference, such as the Herrenhausen conference, I would expect to meet researchers coming from all three areas, and this was in fact the case. This indicates to me that we’re moving in the right direction, even though I fear that we’ll have to bear with the pointless discussions about the “true nature” of digital humanities for some time to come.

Author: Michael Piotrowski

Computational linguist, computer scientist, professor for digital humanities at the Université de Lausanne.

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