Digital humanities

Example of research which includes the use of digital methods: network analysis as an archival tool.[1]

Digital humanities (DH) is an area of scholarly activity at the intersection of computing and the disciplines of the humanities. The nature of this activity ranges broadly, from the practical, such as digitizing historical texts, to the philosophical, such as reflection on the nature of representation itself. This spectrum of activities is reflected in definitions of the field that range from it being a collection of methods to being a distinct epistemology and a kind of science. Within this variation, a distinctive feature of digital humanities is its cultivation of a two-way relationship between the humanities and the digital: the field both employs technology in the pursuit of humanities research and subjects technology to humanistic questioning and interrogation, often simultaneously.


The definition of the "digital humanities" is being continually formulated by scholars and practitioners; they ask questions and demonstrate through projects and collaborations with others. Collaboration is a major part of DH, with not only scholars sharing their research with other scholars, but with ongoing DH projects, the public can share their ideas about different topics with each other and learn from each other's opinion.

Historically, the digital humanities developed out of humanities computing, and has become associated with other fields, such as humanistic computing, social computing, and media studies. In concrete terms, the digital humanities embraces a variety of topics, from curating online collections of primary sources (primarily textual) to the data mining of large cultural data sets to the development of maker labs. Digital humanities incorporates both digitized (remediated) and born-digital materials and combines the methodologies from traditional humanities disciplines (such as history, philosophy, linguistics, literature, art, archaeology, music, and cultural studies) and social sciences,[2] with tools provided by computing (such as Hypertext, Hypermedia, data visualisation, information retrieval, data mining, statistics, text mining, digital mapping), and digital publishing. Related subfields of digital humanities have emerged like software studies, platform studies, and critical code studies. Fields that parallel the digital humanities include new media studies and information science as well as media theory of composition, game studies, particularly in areas related to digital humanities project design and production, cultural analytics and culturomics.[3][4]

In an interview on the subject of her work, Kathleen Fitzpatrick, an American scholar and exponent of the digital humanities, offers this practical definition: "For me it has to do with the work that gets done at the crossroads of digital media and traditional humanistic study. And that happens in two different ways. On the one hand, it’s bringing the tools and techniques of digital media to bear on traditional humanistic questions; on the other, it’s also bringing humanistic modes of inquiry to bear on digital media."[5] "A chapter in Debates in the Digital Humanities[6] offers twenty-one definitions culled from a far longer online list."[7]

Areas of inquiry

Digital humanities scholars use computational methods either to answer existing research questions or to challenge existing theoretical paradigms, generating new questions and pioneering new approaches. One goal is to systematically integrate computer technology into the activities of humanities scholars,[8] as is done in contemporary empirical social sciences. Such technology-based activities might include incorporation into the traditional arts and humanities disciplines use of text-analytic techniques; GIS; commons-based peer collaboration; and interactive games and multimedia.

Despite the significant trend in digital humanities towards networked and multimodal forms of knowledge, spanning social, visual, and haptic media, a substantial amount of digital humanities focuses on documents and text in ways that differentiate the field's work from digital research in Media studies, Information studies, Communication studies, and Sociology. Another goal of digital humanities is to create scholarship that transcends textual sources. This includes the integration of multimedia, metadata and dynamic environments. An example of this is The Valley of the Shadow project at the University of Virginia, the Vectors Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular at University of Southern California or Digital Pioneers projects at Harvard. Another issue in the digital humanities is the visualization of cultural data sets as researched by Curtin University in Perth, Australia.[9]

A growing number of researchers in digital humanities are using computational methods for the analysis of large cultural data sets such as the Google Books corpus.[3] Examples of such projects were highlighted by the Humanities High Performance Computing competition sponsored by the Office of Digital Humanities in 2008,[10] and also by the Digging Into Data challenge organized in 2009[11] and 2011[12] by NEH in collaboration with NSF,[13] and in partnership with JISC in the UK, and SSHRC in Canada.[14]

Environments and tools

Digital humanities takes place in an environment that might be as small as a mobile device or as large as a virtual reality lab. These are the environments for "creating, publishing and working with digital scholarship [and] include everything from personal equipment to institutes and software to cyberspace."[15]

It is also involved in the creation of software, providing "environments and tools for producing, curating, and interacting with knowledge that is 'born digital' and lives in various digital contexts."[16] In this context, the field is sometimes known as computational humanities. Many such projects share a "commitment to open standards and open source."[17]


Digital humanities descends from the field of humanities computing, of computationally enabled "formal representations of the human record,"[18] whose origins reach back to the late 1940s in the pioneering work of Roberto Busa.[19][20] In the decades which followed archaeologists, classicists, historians, literary scholars, and a broad array of humanities researchers in other disciplines applied emerging computational methods to transform humanities scholarship.[21]

Other aspects of digital humanities were descended from the IRIS Intermedia project on hypertext at Brown University in the 1980s.

The Text Encoding Initiative, born from the desire to create a standard encoding scheme for humanities electronic texts, is the outstanding achievement of early humanities computing. The project was launched in 1987 and published the first full version of the TEI Guidelines in May 1994.[20]

In the nineties, major digital text and image archives emerged at centers of humanities computing in the U.S. (e.g. the Women Writers Project,[22] the Rossetti Archive,[23] and The William Blake Archive[24]), which demonstrated the sophistication and robustness of text-encoding for literature.[25] The Blake archive, in particular, was designed by its editors to take advantage of "the syntheses made possible by the electronic medium" and thus accomplish an "editorial transformation" in the publication of Blake's work which was, from the author's hands, multimedia.[26]

The terminological change from "humanities computing" to "digital humanities" has been attributed to John Unsworth, Susan Schreibman, and Ray Siemens who, as editors of the anthology A Companion to Digital Humanities (2004), tried to prevent the field from being viewed as "mere digitization."[27] Consequently, the hybrid term has created an overlap between fields like rhetoric and composition, which use "the methods of contemporary humanities in studying digital objects,"[27] and digital humanities, which uses "digital technology in studying traditional humanities objects".[27] The use of computational systems and the study of computational media within the arts and humanities more generally has been termed the 'computational turn'.[28]

In 2006 the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), launched the Digital Humanities Initiative (renamed Office of Digital Humanities in 2008), which made widespread adoption of the term "digital humanities" all but irreversible in the United States.[29]

Digital humanities emerged from its former niche status and became "big news"[29] at the 2009 MLA convention in Philadelphia, where digital humanists made "some of the liveliest and most visible contributions"[30] and had their field hailed as "the first 'next big thing' in a long time."[31]

Today, many historical researches have used DH paradigms and tools for Knowledge Mobilization and Public Dissemination (see Boulou Ebanda de B'béri's [32] (The University of Ottawa) which uses the ArcGIS program to map out 19th century Black pioneer's settlement patterns in Southern Ontario.

Organizations and Institutions

The field of digital humanities is served by several organisations: The European Association for Digital Humanities (EADH), the Association for Computers and the Humanities (ACH), the Society for Digital Humanities/Société pour l'étude des médias interactifs (SDH/SEMI), the Japanese Association for Digital Humanities (JADH), the French-speaking Association for Digital Humanities (Humanistica) and the Australasian Association for Digital Humanities (aaDH), which are joined under the umbrella organisation of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO). The alliance funds a number of projects such as the Digital Humanities Quarterly, supports the Text Encoding Initiative, the organisation and sponsoring of workshops and conferences, as well as the funding of small projects, awards and bursaries.[33]

ADHO also oversees a joint annual conference, which began as the ACH/ALLC (or ALLC/ACH) conference, and is now known as the Digital Humanities conference.

CenterNet is an international network of about 100 digital humanities centers in 19 countries, working together to benefit digital humanities and related fields.[34][35]


The automatic analysis of vast textual corpora has created the possibility for scholars to analyze millions of documents in multiple languages with very limited manual intervention. Key enabling technologies have been Parsing, Machine Translation, Topic categorization, Machine Learning.

Narrative network of US Elections 2012[36]

The automatic parsing of textual corpora has enabled the extraction of actors and their relational networks on a vast scale, turning textual data into network data. The resulting networks, which can contain thousands of nodes, are then analyzed by using tools from Network theory to identify the key actors, the key communities or parties, and general properties such as robustness or structural stability of the overall network, or centrality of certain nodes.[37] This automates the approach introduced by Quantitative Narrative Analysis,[38] whereby subject-verb-object triplets are identified with pairs of actors linked by an action, or pairs formed by actor-object.[36]

Content analysis has been a traditional part of social sciences and media studies for a long time. For example, in 2008, Yukihiko Yoshida did a study called[39] "Leni Riefenstahl and German expressionism: research in Visual Cultural Studies using the trans-disciplinary semantic spaces of specialized dictionaries." The study took databases of images tagged with connotative and denotative keywords (a search engine) and found Riefenstahl’s imagery had the same qualities as imagery tagged "degenerate" in the title of the exhibition, "Degenerate Art" in Germany at 1937.

The automation of content analysis has allowed a "big data" revolution to take place in that field, with studies in social media and newspaper content that include millions of news items. Gender bias, readability, content similarity, reader preferences, and even mood have been analyzed based on text mining methods over millions of documents [40] [41] [42] [43] and historical documents written in literary Chinese. [44] The analysis of readability, gender bias and topic bias was demonstrated in [45] showing how different topics have different gender biases and levels of readability; the possibility to detect mood shifts in a vast population by analyzing Twitter content was demonstrated as well.[46]

Criticism and controversies

Lauren F. Klein and Matthew K. Gold have identified a range of criticisms in the Digital Humanities field: 'a lack of attention to issues of race, class, gender, and sexuality; a preference for research-driven projects over pedagogical ones; an absence of political commitment; an inadequate level of diversity among its practitioners; an inability to address texts under copyright; and an institutional concentration in well-funded research universities'.[47] This article mentions many appearances of the Digital Humanities in public media, often in a critical fashion. Digital Humanities has been hailed as a solution to the apparent problems within the humanities, namely a decline in funding, a repeat of debates, and a moribund set of theoretical claims and methodological arguments.[48]

Armand Leroi, writing in the New York Times, discusses the contrast between the algorithmic analysis of themes in literary texts and the work of Harold Bloom, who qualitatively and phenomenologically analyzes the themes of literature over time and through history. The central point of contention is whether or not the Digital Humanities can provide a truly robust analysis of literature and social phenomenon. Can the Digital Humanities provide a novel alternative perspective on the questions asked within the Humanities and Social Sciences?

It has been criticized for not only not paying attention to the traditional questions of lineage and history in the Humanities, but lacking the fundamental cultural criticism that defines the Humanities. However, it remains to be seen whether or not the Humanities have to be tied to cultural criticism, per se, in order to be the Humanities.[49] Alternatively, perhaps this does not matter, as the Digital Humanities could be fundamentally a different enterprise than the Humanities, not a replacement or even supplement.

Adam Kirsch, writing in the New Republic, calls this the "False Promise" of the Digital Humanities.[50] While the rest of Humanities and many Social Science departments are seeing a decline in funding or prestige, the Digital Humanities have been seeing increasing funding and prestige. Burdened with the problems of novelty, the Digital Humanities are discussed as either a revolutionary alternative to the Humanities as we know it or as simply new wine in old bottles. Kirsch attests that the Digital Humanities as currently constructed suffers from problems of being marketers rather than scholars, who attest to the grand capacity of their research more than actually performing new analysis and when they do so, only performing trivial parlor tricks of research. This form of criticism has been repeated by others, such as in Carl Staumshein, writing in Inside Higher Education, who calls it a "Digital Humanities Bubble" [51] and later, in the same publication, Straumshein alleges that the Digital Humanities are a 'Corporatist Restructuring' of the Humanities.[52] Some see the alliance of the Digital Humanities with business to be positive and as they are something to which the business world can pay attention, thus bringing funding and attention to the humanities that it needs.[53] If it were not burdened by the title of Digital Humanities it could escape the allegations that it is elitist and unfairly funded.[54] Furthermore, researchers in the sciences see the Digital Humanities as a welcome improvement over the non-quantitative and repetitive historically popular methods of the humanities and social sciences.[55][56]

Johanna Drucker, a professor at UCLA in the Department of Information Studies, has also criticized the "epistemological fallacies" prevalent in popular visualization tools and technologies (such as Google's n-gram graph) used by digital humanities scholars and the general public, calling some network diagramming and topic modeling tools "just too crude for humanistic work." [57] The lack of transparency in these programs obscure the subjective nature of the data and its processing, she argues, as these programs "generate standard diagrams based on conventional algorithms for screen display...mak[ing] it very difficult for the semantics of the data processing to be made evident." [57]

The literary theorist Stanley Fish claims that the digital humanities pursue a revolutionary agenda and thereby undermine the conventional standards of "pre-eminence, authority and disciplinary power."[58]

There has also been some recent controversy amongst practitioners of digital humanities around the role that race and/or identity politics plays in digital humanities. Tara McPherson attributes some of the lack of racial diversity in digital humanities to the modality of UNIX and computers, themselves.[59] An open thread on recently garnered well over 100 comments on the issue of race in digital humanities, with scholars arguing about the amount that racial (and other) biases affect the tools and texts available for digital humanities research.[60] McPherson posits that there needs to be an understanding and theorizing of the implications of digital technology and race, even when the subject for analysis appears not to be about race.

Amy E. Earheart criticizes what has become the new digital humanities "canon" in the shift from websites using simple HTML to the usage of the TEI and visuals in textual recovery projects.[61] Works that has been previously lost or excluded were afforded a new home on the internet, but much of the same marginalizing practices found in traditional humanities also took place digitally. According to Earhart, there is a "need to examine the canon that we, as digital humanists, are constructing, a canon that skews toward traditional texts and excludes crucial work by women, people of color, and the GLBTQ community."[61]

Practitioners in digital humanities are also failing to meet the needs of users with disabilities. George H. Williams argues that universal design is imperative for practitioners to increase usability because "many of the otherwise most valuable digital resources are useless for people who are—for example—deaf or hard of hearing, as well as for people who are blind, have low vision, or have difficulty distinguishing particular colors." [62] In order to provide accessibility successfully, and productive universal design, it is important to understand why and how users with disabilities are using the digital resources while remembering that all users approach their informational needs differently.[62]

See also






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