Thoughts on directions for Digital History

November 16, 2011


My work has led to a lot of reading and talking about digital humanities, the role of theory, and the possibilities for the shape of digital scholarship in the years to come. There are a variety of opinions on these topics (about as many as there are people practicing digital scholarship), but it is still a very open question. Because it is still so open, I thought I might add my two cents to the conversation.

Much of the conversation about theory has taken place around whether the creation of digital tools, databases, archives, visualizations, etc, are theoretically informed practices, whether those practices need to be given an additional layer of theoretical reflection for them to count as scholarship, and other well articulated questions. I would like to move in a different direction.

First, I think part of the trouble here is the attempt to discuss theory in terms of digital “humanities.” Having studied in English, Philosophy, Religion, American Studies, and now History departments, I know from experience that, while there are similarities between these fields that have allowed me to move between them, there are rather large differences in terms of questions asked, the uses of “theory” (scare-quoted because of Philosophy – they discuss ideas and arguments. Everyone else appropriates the ideas as “theory.” At least according to them), and the end goals of scholarship. While each seeks to uncover something of the human condition – and so is part of the humanities – they are not exactly engaged in the same project.

Thus, while I think it is good that the humanities are attempting to come together in this digital world, I think we also have to create room for disciplinary distinctiveness. What it means to engage is digital literary studies may be different than digital philosophy or digital history; and the way “theory” is utilized in each may also differ.

Second, I think digital history, the field that I am personally most invested in at present, could benefit from moving away from modeling off of literature. In a recent conversation (again related to work), Michael O’Malley expressed frustration with the historian’s practice of “narrativizing the evidence” – we gather our evidence and then present that evidence to the reader surrounded in prose and shaped into a story. While this can make for better monographs (when and if it is done well), it is not the most helpful model for digital work.

But where would we go? I suggest we investigate moving closer to the social sciences.

This is particularly true in cases of scholarship that utilize data-mining, topic modeling, geospatial analysis, and the like. As I have thought in the past about questions to ask and problems to investigate digitally, I have run into a question of what to do with my results. If my investigations support my hypothesis, where do I go from there? Does that work become example or case study A? If it is A, and A took that much work, do I need to be asking an even larger question so that I can provide B, C, and D as well? How do I surround these results in narrative – wouldn’t that be redundant with a visualization?

Moving toward a more social scientific model may help with some of these questions. It may also help with the question of theory.

In what I image of a social scientific model, the historian begins with a historical question and compiles a collection of sources appropriate for the scope of the question. (This is very similar to our current practice of beginning with a question and narrowing in on the relevant primary sources). These sources are then investigated using digital and algorithmic tools, and old-fashioned reading. The results of these investigations are then presented and, herein lies the key, an argument is made about what the results of the investigations mean for the question originally pursued. The representations of the data do not stand on their own – they are not neutral and obvious. The data and their representations must be interpreted and that interpretation must be argued for. But that interpretation and argument does not need to be modeled after the novel. In such a presentation, the theoretical underpinnings of ones question, ones selection of sources, ones choice of analytical methodology, and ones interpretation of the findings must be addressed.

Moving away from narrative does not mean moving away from words. And although parts of the argument in a digital history project will exist in the organization of the information or the mode of investigation, those choices and the effects they have on results and interpretations need to be discussed as part of the scholarly activity.

The “gold-standard” for digital history is not the monograph. I am excited to be involved in investigating what it will be instead.

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2 Responses to “Thoughts on directions for Digital History”

  1. […] to wrestle with is the importance of narrative in historical scholarship. I am slowly recanting an earlier renunciation of narrative, and am coming to realize the importance of the story, both for the presentation of the information […]

  2. […] to wrestle with is the importance of narrative in historical scholarship. I am slowly recanting an earlier renunciation of narrative, and am coming to realize the importance of the story, both for the presentation of the information […]

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