I have been talking a lot these days to scholars who are new to the concept of digital humanities. They are aware of the new research questions that emerge in the field due to the vastly enlarged scale of studies and the ability to analyse big data. Can you provide examples of new research questions (inspired by digital humanities) that are not linked to the big data problem, something beyond the usual aspects of access to data and the scale of data? Your answers would be very helpful for promoting digital humanities to those who say they do not need big data for their research.
New research questions in the humanities(9 posts) (6 voices)
For my own work I tend to think of digital humanities less as a problem domain than as a methodology for solving existing problems. In other words, my own research questions tend to be rather traditional research questions about religious history which a non-digital historian could have come up with. But I don't know that I could successfully research and answer those questions apart from digital methods.
A concrete example. Right now I'm working on a dissertation about conversions between religions in the nineteenth-century United States. That's a fairly traditional topic. One part of my methodology is to gather as many different converts as I can find into a database. In this case the digital methodology gives my research a breadth which I don't think I could otherwise manage. Another example: for this current chapter I'm making a map of Paulist missions, along with some charts of who converted when and in what quantities. That is a social historical question which a historian from the 1960s might have asked. But mapping in R or GIS makes the whole research project much more feasible. My data set is by no means "big data," certainly not in any sense that a big data scientist would recognize, since it was laboriously gathered from manuscripts. But the digital methodologies let me ask specific questions of the sources that otherwise I would have passed over.
This kind of work also raises other kinds of questions, about sharing data and collaborating with other scholars, which are not research questions per se, but which are nevertheless questions about research.
Your question is very interesting, and I hope that this forum will attract a variety of different answers.
One subset of the humanities that is a huge part of RRCHNM is public history, which I think similarly gets at the new methodolgy angle Lincoln is talking about. What does the mission of a museum or archive look like when moved online? What new ways of engaging and sharing with the public can we develop? How do we make sure that online interaction and within-the-walls mutually reinforce each other.
Incidentally, that's also part of where the emphasis on tool building comes from, but I mostly say that because I'm building some of those tools!
Another aspect is teaching humanities, finding new ways to represent and discuss traditional texts in order spark new ways of teaching. A while ago I built Bill-Crit-O-Matic (what is it with DHers and "o-matic"s?), with the idea that grad students reading a Shakespeare play are reading more to learn the criticism than the play, since they've seen/read it many times before. So the site makes the text secondary, and emphasizes the critics, their interactions, and interests. So, again not a new research question, but at least an idea for a new teaching approach.
I know this isn't the answer you want, but ... Personally, I would start by admitting that there are lots of topics in the humanities where digital methods don't add all that much value.
E.g., if you're really just doing a close reading of a single novel by Henry James -- that's valid, and I've got absolutely no desire to convince you that you need to use computers.
On the other hand, I suspect that many humanists who *think* they don't need "big data" approaches are actually using those approaches every day when they run Google searches, or WorldCat searches, or what have you. Search is already a form of data mining. It's just not a very rigorous form: it's guaranteed only to produce confirmation of the theses you bring to it.
So if a scholar is claiming that Henry James represents broader late-19c developments, they might want to reflect on the way they're already in fact using big data, tacitly, to find evidence that supports their claim. On the other hand, I realize that's not easy to tell people.
+1 to Ted. Important to remember what DH doesn't do.
It also reminds me of another thing I often bring up in these kinds of conversations -- thinking about the "big data" of yore.
If the concordance to Shakespeare or Chaucer or whom-have-you is valuable, and changed research methods and questions, there's an answer to how big data changed research. Back in the day, those concordances were huge monuments of scholarship in their own right. Now, they could be computationally achieved very quickly, like within a week, maybe. If that's true, starting with the affordances of a concordance, scale that up Moore's Law style.
I'd add the Oxford English Dictionary to the list of big data tools already being used.
Here again, my literature background is coming through!
Thanks a lot for your replies! Yes, many people just do close reading. Thank you, Ted, for sincerely admitting that there are things that 'DH does not do'. But don't they need digital methods to build (say) networks of metaphors (some metaphors may belong to a particular set of characters) or don't they need spatial tools to map their characters and study how particular words are related to geographical settings? Thank you, Linkoln, for reminding us that these are old research questions that are easier to answer with digital tools.
Anyway, currently, big data changes might result in turning research in the humanities into a set of standardized operations, a sort of assembly line. This may explain Eliah Meek's remark that DH conference this year was dominated by text analysis. Don't you think that DH is now at the stage of market-driven consumerism rather than the stage of looking for new intellectual discoveries in the humanities similar to a spiritual and intellectual wave that printing press raised in Europe in the sixteenth century?
Replying to @Patrick Murray-John's post:
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is a great example of an early (1988-) digital resource that has produced a wealth of research questions that only it could answer, but which are nonetheless basically humanistic questions about intellectual history, literature, society, and culture. Some examples include the significance of particular authors (e.g. Shakespeare) on A. the dictionary and B. the language (and C. the gap between A. and B.); word coinage and sense coinage; changing editorial practices (reflecting changing societal attitudes) regarding words about sex, race, and religion; and the varying significance of different literary periods to late Victorian lexicographers (and their successors). All this and much more using just the interfaces (CDROM and online) supplied by OUP over the years. My own DH project uses the back data to detect and document the OED's influence on poetry (and vice versa), as well as other kinds of literary production (http://poetry-contingency.uwaterloo.ca ).
@Inna: I have to confess that it seems to me expansion of scale is in no danger of turning humanities research into "a set of standardized operations."
It might be nice if we had standards for any part of this process! But we don't. At this point there are only maybe twenty or thirty people seriously attempting macroscopic, quantitative humanities research, and many of those people are not in humanities disciplines: they're psychologists or computer scientists or linguists. So there's a huge diversity of approach. We're all posing different questions, and having to improvise our own ad-hoc solutions. And my sense is that we haven't even begun to discover what's possible in this domain. I believe that because I keep stumbling on really big obvious questions that haven't been posed yet.
I understand that a lot of people in the humanities are philosophically or temperamentally uneasy with quantitative methods, especially at a macroscopic scale. Which is fine! there are lots of persuasive reasons not to do this kind of research. But the notion that "it has already been done; it's standardized now" is not one of the reasons I find persuasive. I'm too vividly aware that almost nothing has been done yet in this domain.
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