Digital humanities: a discipline unto itself, or just another methodology?

How do you define an academic discipline? Or indeed a sub-discipline for that matter? If one goes to enough conferences and seminars concerned with digital humanities, this is a question which will raise its head. The way it goes is usually as follows: there have been papers presented regarding research being undertaken within the digital arts and humanities, and there is a discussion among practitioners about the relative merits of different metadata standards, or questions about the broader implications for other types of research which would build upon the work which had been presented. Then comes the question nobody wants to hear, which usually comes from an established member of the academy (a tenured professor if you’re really lucky, in something like Classics) who asks a question which attempts to pull the rug from under proceedings.

“But what is actually different about what you’re talking about? Why is it different? Why call it digital Humanities as though it was separate? You are a part of the humanities.” The implication is that somehow research and knowledge creation is a zero-sum activity. If you do work over there, that detracts from what is going on in our well-established discipline.For this mindset, for digital humanities to qualify as independent we essentialize vague notions of novelty and originality. It makes an absolute of the new, and yet the arts and humanities are preeminently the realm of degrees and gradations, of context and qualification. The reasons behind this tension between the established (not ‘old’) and the new are probably informed by any number of issues, but one of these has to be the fact that arts and humanities budgets are ever more under pressure by funding agencies, government budgets, or university managers. As such, it may feel to these established disciplines that there is a zero-sum situation which is confronting them. As such, digital humanities is perceived as the enemy within the gates.

I am not interested in rehashing debates about budgets, research impact, metrics, etc. Instead I want to offer a path towards short-circuiting this whole tedious debate to which my own satisfaction in formal philosophical terms. It will give me something to think about at the next digital humanities conference when this ‘issue’ is mooted once more. The standard way to approach the question of the digital humanities is to consider it either as (a) a methodology, or (b) an infrastructure. The former is the view which I encountered when I suggested adding a section on digital humanities to a document which I have been contributing to, a report concerned with the role played by arts and humanities research in higher education today. The latter is the alternative approach, which allows us to consider the role played by organizations such as Europeana  or Open Culture, repositories and archive infrastructure which offers points of contact and vectors of communication for digitized documents and collections. I do not think that the validity of either of these functions is controversial within the spectrum of what digital humanists do today, and it is this notion of “doing” which I want to dwell on.

I noted above that digital humanities is connected with research, in that it is an activity, and a practice, as much as it is an abstract subject. I have resisted capitalizing matters by positing the rather intimidating monolith of “Digital Humanities”, as this is a road we do not want to go down. The greatest thing about the community of digital arts and humanities researchers, practitioners, scholars, and theorists is that we are a broad church. The pleasure of seminars in this area is being surprised by new content, and by new approaches. As such, the activity is the thing to be focused on. Of the group outlined above, digital humanities researchers specifically are concerned with research questions. They are not especially preoccupied with debates about what banner their do their work under. They just get on with it. What sets them apart from the established/non-digital academic disciplines, however, is that they get to answer different research questions. As such, I would suggest that not only is digital humanities (a) a methodology, and (b) an infrastructure, but that it is arguably (c) a discipline or a sub-discipline unto itself.

This is a somewhat controversial statement to make (within a certain rarefied atmosphere at least) because it makes claims to difference which some find unacceptable. I once heard the point made that the research being done in the digital humanities is no different from ‘traditional’ research, except that it added a few computers to speed things up. When I hear such comments, I have to silence the Hegelian in me which wants to point out that there comes a point where a quantitative difference becomes a qualitative difference. Instead, I will ask a question, which is as follows: if your research approach, your methodology, your discipline does not allow you to answer a research question, if it doesn’t even allow you to outline a possible solution, then does this question still belong in your subject? If, for example, you were to have an office block full of real, live humans working away with calculators (perhaps you would prefer slide rules?) to do some of the quantitative and qualitative analysis that is possible within the techniques and technologies adopted by digital humanists, and you still couldn’t answer this research question within a reasonable period of time…what then?

The matter here, of course, is one of time. What is an intractable problem in one nexus, one collection of methodologies/approaches/techniques/technologies will not necessarily be so in another. If your level and form of analysis prevents you from answering a given research question, that is conceivably the limit of your discipline or subject. Once again, however, it is to be emphasized that this does not necessitate a zero-sum conception of knowledge and research. The sciences have been dealing with analogous matters, and have dealt with it by embracing these liminal zones, these realms of tradition between one discipline or subject and another. Thus we have not just subjects such as biochemistry, or physical chemistry (the more obvious examples) but also the higher level ideas of practicing in a multi-, trans-, or interdisciplinary manner, and beyond this into the idea of Mode 2 science, or what John Ziman calls ‘post academic science’.

The notion of tractability versus intractability then offers us one response to either the opponents of digital humanities, or those who are simply indisposed towards it by their very neutrality. Tractability versus intractability is not an excuse to close off one discipline from another, to keep digital humanities separate from humanities.  But it is a means of suggesting that those who claim there is nothing new under the sun may need to get out of the shadows and take a look around them, and see there is indeed new research and new practice being undertaken by digital humanists, that this is to be embraced, and that all humanists – be they digital, analog, or mechanical – can share in the fruits of the exciting work being undertaken today.

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