What is Digital Humanities?

This is a difficult question, and I’m sure everyone has their own little definition, but I think it’s something we need to be explicit about somewhere.

The DDH page purporting to answer this question gives a useful account for those wanting to know about the Department and its history in the discipline, but if they’re looking for a beginner’s definition of DH itself, it studiously doesn’t answer the question. The Wikipedia article on the subject does offer a concise definition, which is probably useful for a beginner, but I’m sure we could all pick holes in it or object to some of the language used.

Can we do better? (In a couple of sentences!)

To get the ball rolling, here’s my attempt:

Digital Humanities may involve the application of methodologies and research agendas from computer science and other informatics-heavy sciences to the subject area of traditional humanities disciplines, such as literature, history and languages.

5 thoughts on “What is Digital Humanities?

  1. I suppose there’s always a tricky line to walk between descriptive and prescriptive formulations of this. I’ve elsewhere written a taxonomy of the digital humanities, which seems to have generated absolutely zero heat, I’d imagine because it’s a bit bland and unarguable. On the other hand, prescriptive definitions will by their very nature exclude some number of people who lay claim to the title – in which case you’re generating heat, but it’s not entirely clear how to harness it.

    I think the formulation proposed above probably falls a little too far onto the bland/descriptive side as it stands – but perhaps becomes productive if one starts to unpick it a little. Which methodologies? What research agendas? To what effect? Etc.

    I suppose my first pluck at it would be around the question of research agendas – because it seems to me there’s a general cleavage in the humanities (and hence the digital humanities) between what might be termed (problematically, but there you are) objective and subjective research agendas. By this I mean that a fair bit of humanities research activity is focused upon establishing facts as far as they can be established – in the domains of say, epigraphy, papyrology, prosopography, or philology. There is also, however, a larger category which is focused upon the kinds of interactions and responses humans have with such facts, the possible interpretations that may be placed upon them, and so on and so forth.

    In the former case computers are often simply a faster and better way of doing things; rather than publishing inscriptions in large-and-difficult-to-search compendia, they can be tagged up and published electronically, etc.

    In the latter case the role of the computer is more problematic – and I suppose has to do with the question of how computers mediate experience, whether of particular (traditional humanities) artifacts, or in toto. This question is interesting because what it looks like depends heavily what point in the stack you’re talking about: it’s entirely valid to talk about questions ranging from “what fields and members ought an object representing a historical agent possess?” to “what algorithms best simulate the activities of human musical composers” to “what has the role of Twitter been in the Arab Spring?”. The first might be classified as a CompEng question; the second is a bit more CompSci; and the last is sociological or historical in character.

    I think it’s easy to argue that considered as a cluster they have enough in common to fall under the rubric of “Digital Humanities”. What further conclusions might be drawn from that is to me at the moment less clear.

  2. I suppose my “answer in two sentences” question is another way of asking, how do you explain what DH is to someone you meet at an academic cocktail party, but whose eyes will glaze over if you’re still talking in more than about a minute? How do you explain this to a student, or the parents of a student, who might not have considered this as a degree area before, but whom we need to attract to survive? How do you explain what DH is to a dean, or a publisher, or a librarian, or someone else who doesn’t really need to know about taxonomies and subjective/objective research agendas, but will judge you on how you answer in two sentences?

    1. I am not sure if definitions are a good thing. And if anything, the digital humanities is much easier to define that a lot of other areas of enquiry in the humanities such as ‘history’ or ‘ethnography’.

      And research outputs in the DH field are not without risk in both their epistemological and political positioning. By political positioning I mean that all fields in the humanities align themselves with certain academic and economic cultures and given the eclectic nature of the DH field, there is perhaps more danger in the DH than other fields of it being hijacked by managerial or ‘academic’ cultures that have little understanding nor respect for independent humanities research, academic freedom, academic ‘infrastructure’ and the role of education in the provision of a robust and bold critique of our social and cultural life (regardless of it positioning within economic and cultural power structures).

      It could be argued in the humanities (and in fact I will) ,that we don’t make ‘things’ we make people. We make people that make things; be they films, poetry, music, political observations, or encoding standards. And some of the people who make these things are going to make things we don’t agree with and we must be in a position to critique them. If the later is not done, the broader humanities is undermined.

      It is the risks inherent in the field that often under-critiqued; confront the risks in the field and then there will be no need for definitions.Don’t look at the ‘thing’ the person made, look at the person who made the thing. The DH didn’t make the thing; we made the person!

  3. What about my own definition that can be read on the first paragraph at the beginning of the MA DH Programme page:

    Digital Humanities is a discipline born from the intersection of humanities scholarship and computational technologies. Its key purpose is to investigate how digital methodologies can be used to enhance research in disciplines such as History, Literature, Languages, Art History, Music, Cultural Studies and many others. Digital Humanities has a very strong practical component as it includes the concrete creation of digital resources for the study of specific disciplines, while at the same time having a strongly theoretical basis.

    I also posted it on my blog

  4. Frederick Gibbs has recently written a lengthy article where he categorizes DH definitions by type

    He makes a good survey and makes it possible to highlight common terms – but it’s only a first, partial step towards being able to come up with a unique definition.

    Of the many mentioned, I personally like Leif Isaksen’s one:

    I see ‘Digital Humanities’ as an umbrella term for two different but related developments:1) Humanities Computing (the specialist use of computing technology to undertake Humanities research) and 2) the implications for the Humanities of the social revolution created by ubiquitous computing and online access. Since the late Noughties the latter seems to have become the driving force in DH with responsibility for much of the ‘boom’ in public interest and funding. -Leif Isaksen, University of Southampton, UK

    This is also a work-in-progress definition, but I think it really reflects a current state of the research in the field and the risk of this dichotomy to create a bit of a schism.

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