On the Digital Humanities
It is not often that so slow and stuffy a discipline as history experiences a genuinely paradigm-shifting (if I might employ a bit of hateful management speak) development. While new historiographical theories and new interpretative perspectives certainly arise with adequate regularity, the advance in actual research methodologies is generally slow. This pace has been picked up of late with the rise of the digital humanities, the new research methodologies and electronic dissemination techniques brought about the rise of computer technologies. New methodologies such as data-mining and idiom-mapping have allowed historians to find hitherto unseen conceptual relations between and within thinkers. Visualisation techniques allow us to map and better understand the transmission of ideas and practices across time and space. Digitisation and digital research environments allow access to published and archival materials previously impossible for researchers ranging from first-year undergraduates to noted and lauded scholars.
Unsurprisingly, this new movement has not been without controversy. Some of you may have witnesses or taken part in the mini-controversy occasioned by Stephen Marche’s Literature is not Data: Against Digital Humanities (for a pair of excellent responses to which see In Defense of Data). While poorly written and less than wholly coherent, Marche’s critique did raise one of the big issues which people seem to take with the digital humanities: that it reduces the irreducible. For a clear and concise response to this objection, I very highly recommend the two retorts to Marche’s article to which I have linked above. There are also more than a few historians and other humanists who are uninterested in, dismissive of, or even hostile to the digital humanities for any number of reasons.
Having developed a growing interest in making use of the new research methodologies of the digital humanities, I am undertaking to the learn to code. Using an online tutorial called The Programming Historian 2, suggested to me by fellow twitterstorian @ProfessMoravec. I have worked my way through the first couple of lessons, finding it both enjoyable and taxing to attempt to master something so completely novel. Hopefully with some time and practice I will be able to make use, maybe even participate in the development of, the new exciting research tools of the digital humanities. I am particularly interested in data-mining and idiom-mapping as methods of finding conceptual relations within and between the works of thinkers in order to better understand the development and transmission of ideas during the early modern era, and in projects to digitise and liberalise access to previously hard-to-access materials such as manuscript working papers and works unjustly overlooked by or simply unaffordable to many university libraries.
If you have any thoughts on the digital humanities as a discipline or a cluster of methodologies, I would be very interested to hear them.
This post also inaugurates a new category on The Molinist (huzzah?): Digital Humanities. In it you will find all posts about or in any way connected to this broad and emerging field.