Digital History as Trading Zone

Digital History signifies a transition wherein digital methods are incorporated in historical research. Digital History thus introduces techniques developed by computer scientists or engineers into the practice of historians, so that we can speak of methodological interdisciplinarity.[1]Klein, J. T. (2014). Interdisciplining Digital Humanities: Boundary Work in an Emerging Field (online). University of Michigan Press. doi:10.3998/dh.12869322.0001.001 ref-oa However, how digital methods affect the practices of History, in methodology as well as epistemology, remains unexplored. My PhD research aims to address this gap. This blogpost introduces some initial ideas and concepts that I will be investigating with an ethnographic study for which I hope to find interested historians, computer scientists, or other relevant actors of Digital History.

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References   [ + ]

1. Klein, J. T. (2014). Interdisciplining Digital Humanities: Boundary Work in an Emerging Field (online). University of Michigan Press. doi:10.3998/dh.12869322.0001.001 ref-oa
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DH2017 Abstract – Unpacking Collaboration in Digital History Projects

Next week I will be in Montreal for the ADHO DH conference, where I will present a poster with some results from my PhD research. Below you can find the abstract, and below that the poster itself, designed by my wife Lindi. For those not able to come, follow the Twitter hashtag #dh2017, and if you’re able to come I hope to see you somewhere during a coffee break or at my poster presentation!

Unpacking Collaboration in Digital History Projects

Digital history is concerned with the incorporation of digital methods in historical research practices. Thus, digital history aims to use methods, concepts, or tools from other disciplines to the benefit of historical research, making it a form of methodological interdisciplinarity.[1]Klein, J. T. (2014). Interdisciplining Digital Humanities: Boundary Work in an Emerging Field. online. University of Michigan Press doi:10.3998/dh.12869322.0001.001. This requires expertise of different facets, such as technology, history, and data management, and as a result many digital history activities are a collaboration of professionals and scholars from different backgrounds. Such collaborations would fit Svensson’s characterisation of digital humanities as a fractioned trading zone.[2]Svensson, P. (2011). The digital humanities as a humanities project. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 11(1–2): 42–60 doi:10.1177/1474022211427367.
Svensson, P. (2012). Beyond the Big Tent. In Gold, M. K. (ed), Debates in the Digital Humanities. online. University of Minnesota Press.
Simply stated, this means first that digital humanities functions as heterogeneous collaborations, i.e. with participants from different backgrounds, and second that the participants act voluntarily. In this paper, we will investigate these two aspects in the context of digital history to understand how digital history projects function as heterogeneous collaborations, and what the participants’ incentives are for entering such collaborations. We will discuss this by presenting findings from interviews with practitioners in digital history projects, and reflections on projects in which the author himself has participated.

The concept of trading zones was coined by Galison who described it as “an arena in which radically different activities could be locally, but not globally, coordinated” (p. 119).[3]Galison, P. (1996). Computer simulations and the trading zone. The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contexts, And Power. Stanford University Press, pp. 118–57. That is, although the disciplines of e.g. computer science and history cannot coordinate activities on a global discipline-wide level, and do not contribute towards one another as disciplines, in local collaborations it is possible to communicate and coordinate a shared goal of research within a so-called trading zone. This concept was further developed by Collins et al. who suggested four types of trading zones using two dimensions.[4]Collins, H., Evans, R. and Gorman, M. (2007). Trading zones and interactional expertise. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 38(4): 657–66 doi:10.1016/j.shpsa.2007.09.003. The first dimension is cultural maintenance from homogeneous to heterogeneous, i.e., how the two groups define themselves and to what extent they aim to maintain their identity. On this scale, more homogeneous means the two groups become more alike to form a single group, while more heterogeneous means they remain two distinct groups. The second is coercion from collaborative to coercive, i.e., what the power relations in the trading zone are. On this scale, more collaborative means the two groups are both acting out of free will, while more coercive means one group is imposing practices upon the other. When a trading zone is heterogeneous and collaborative, we speak of a fractioned trading zone as Svensson does.

One instantiation of this is through boundary objects, a concept developed by Star and Griesemer to describe objects used in heterogeneous collaborations where different parties may have different understandings of the object, while the object keeps a common core identity to all parties.[5]Star, S. L. (2010). This is Not a Boundary Object: Reflections on the Origin of a Concept. Science, Technology & Human Values, 35(5): 601–17 doi:10.1177/0162243910377624.
Star, S. L. and Griesemer, J. R. (1989). Institutional Ecology, `Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, 19(3): 387–420 doi:10.1177/030631289019003001.
This concept could be used to refer to the tool under development or the data on which the tool and historian will work. However, in this paper we will approach the project itself as boundary object; the project binds the participants together, but we will ask what each participant expects out of the project, and how participants individually approach the project.

This leads us to the second part of our investigation, the incentives for collaboration. When writing about interdisciplinary collaboration in digital history, this is almost always done to underscore the positive or even necessary effects.[6]For example
Eijnatten, J. van, Pieters, T. and Verheul, J. (2013). Big Data for Global History: The Transformative Promise of Digital Humanities. BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review, 128(4): 55–77.
Hitchcock, T. (2014). Big Data, Small Data and Meaning Historyonics http://historyonics.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/big-data-small-data-and-meaning_9.html.
Sternfeld, J. (2011). Archival theory and digital historiography: Selection, search, and metadata as archival processes for assessing historical contextualization. American Archivist, 74(2): 544–75.
However, such collaboration is not trivial and requires dedication and investments from all involved, e.g. as shown by Siemens.[7]Siemens, L., Duff, W., Cunningham, R. and Warwick, C. (2009). “It challenges members to think of their work through another kind of specialist”s eyes’: Exploration of the benefits and challenges of diversity in digital project teams. Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 46(1): 1–14 doi:10.1002/meet.2009.1450460223.
Siemens, L. and INKE Research Group (2012). From Writing the Grant to Working the Grant : An Exploration of Processes and Procedures in Transition. Scholarly and Research Communication, 3(1).
In previous research, it has been shown that the incentives for joining a project had a strong influence on the success of collaborations between computer scientists and earth scientists.[8]Weedman, J. (1998). The Structure of Incentive: Design and Client Roles in Application-Oriented Research. Science, Technology & Human Values, 23(3): 315–45 doi:10.1177/016224399802300303. To understand these incentives, we follow this work and look at reasons for joining the project, individual goals for the project, and expected effects of the participation after the project has ended. From these aspects, we will analyse situations of conflicting interests and expectations. For example, in an interview one historian noted about their project:

”[W]e’re supposed to be advising the team developing the tool. And trying to then carry out research on a specific case study. And so originally it was like wow we’re going to be able to use the tool, but very quickly it became clear ok actually probably we’re not going to be able to use the tool.”

In this paper, we will thus unpack the fractioned trading zones of digital history projects, to gain an understanding of how heterogeneous, interdisciplinary collaborations work, and why participants join these collaborations.

References   [ + ]

1. Klein, J. T. (2014). Interdisciplining Digital Humanities: Boundary Work in an Emerging Field. online. University of Michigan Press doi:10.3998/dh.12869322.0001.001.
2. Svensson, P. (2011). The digital humanities as a humanities project. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 11(1–2): 42–60 doi:10.1177/1474022211427367.
Svensson, P. (2012). Beyond the Big Tent. In Gold, M. K. (ed), Debates in the Digital Humanities. online. University of Minnesota Press.
3. Galison, P. (1996). Computer simulations and the trading zone. The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contexts, And Power. Stanford University Press, pp. 118–57.
4. Collins, H., Evans, R. and Gorman, M. (2007). Trading zones and interactional expertise. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 38(4): 657–66 doi:10.1016/j.shpsa.2007.09.003.
5. Star, S. L. (2010). This is Not a Boundary Object: Reflections on the Origin of a Concept. Science, Technology & Human Values, 35(5): 601–17 doi:10.1177/0162243910377624.
Star, S. L. and Griesemer, J. R. (1989). Institutional Ecology, `Translations’ and Boundary Objects: Amateurs and Professionals in Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, 1907-39. Social Studies of Science, 19(3): 387–420 doi:10.1177/030631289019003001.
6. For example
Eijnatten, J. van, Pieters, T. and Verheul, J. (2013). Big Data for Global History: The Transformative Promise of Digital Humanities. BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review, 128(4): 55–77.
Hitchcock, T. (2014). Big Data, Small Data and Meaning Historyonics http://historyonics.blogspot.co.uk/2014/11/big-data-small-data-and-meaning_9.html.
Sternfeld, J. (2011). Archival theory and digital historiography: Selection, search, and metadata as archival processes for assessing historical contextualization. American Archivist, 74(2): 544–75.
7. Siemens, L., Duff, W., Cunningham, R. and Warwick, C. (2009). “It challenges members to think of their work through another kind of specialist”s eyes’: Exploration of the benefits and challenges of diversity in digital project teams. Proceedings of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 46(1): 1–14 doi:10.1002/meet.2009.1450460223.
Siemens, L. and INKE Research Group (2012). From Writing the Grant to Working the Grant : An Exploration of Processes and Procedures in Transition. Scholarly and Research Communication, 3(1).
8. Weedman, J. (1998). The Structure of Incentive: Design and Client Roles in Application-Oriented Research. Science, Technology & Human Values, 23(3): 315–45 doi:10.1177/016224399802300303.
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DHBenelux 2017 Abstract – Digital History Projects as Boundary Objects

Next week I will be in Utrecht for the fourth DHBenelux conference. This year the conference will include pre-conference workshops, and I signed up for the workshop on tool criticism, a follow-up to the excellent workshop that was held in 2015 (see PDF report here). At the conference I will present a paper showcasing some results of my PhD research into digital history collaborations. Below you can find the abstract of the paper.  For those not able to come, follow the hashtag #dhbenelux. And if you are able to come, see you next week!

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Why do we need a definition of DH?

Like all great debates in DH, the return of the “what is DH” debate started off with a tweet:

This is a recurrent question, and one might ask whether in 2017 it’s still a fair question. Indeed, in 2017 it is not so popular anymore to debate definitions of DH. As I wrote in my previous blogpost, I agree it is not always important, as I don’t think it is an important question when educating students about DH. On the other hand, one might ask whether this isn’t just evasive; we can’t define DH, so we deny the importance of that definition.  In this blogpost, I will not provide a definitive answer to what is DH, but I will argue that is remains an important question for two reasons: practical and epistemological.

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What should we teach when teaching DH?

Recently a student approached me with extensive feedback on my course Doing Digital History of last year. The short summary was that he liked me as a teacher, that he liked the structure of the course, but that he disagreed with the learning objectives of the course. We eventually had a discussion about what teaching digital humanities (DH) should be about, and the up- and downsides of different approaches. In the end, his disagreements went down to three assumptions I made that lie at the core of my course. As many universities are developing courses in digital history or digital humanities, I thought it would be interesting to lay out my assumptions and his objections as a student. If you have any feedback on my assumptions, please put them in the comments!

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DHBenelux 2017 submissions

This year marks the fourth annual DHBenelux conference, which cycles through the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg. This fourth instalment will be held in Utrecht (the Netherlands), and last week the review process was finished and authors were contacted about the decisions. This provides me the opportunity to write down an analysis of submissions to DHBenelux 2017. For previous years, see blogposts related to 2016 and the period 2014-2016. Below I will look at the submissions, authors, and keywords.

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AIUCD 2017 Panel and Paper abstract

Next week I will be visiting Rome to join the Associazione per l’Informatica Umanistica e le Culture Digitali (AIUCD) conference which will be held from 26-28 January at Sapienza University. See the entire programme here. The topic of the conference is “Il telescopio inverso: big data e distant reading nelle discipline umanistiche”, and as a result Mark Hill and I have formed a panel on big data, distant reading, concept drift, and digital history. In this blogpost I’ll post the abstract of the panel, and my own abstract; if the full proceedings including the abstracts of the other panel members are online I’ll add it to the presentations page. We are excited to have brought together scholars working on concept detection, ambiguity, and methodology of history, so we hope we will get a very nice discussion going.

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Access to literature via proxy in Luxembourg

Today I received an email from the university library that as of today, we have to register with the library before we can download academic literature. The reason is that the Consortium Luxembourg wants to track usage statistics to determine the financial contributions from each Consortium member. The university librarians gave two solutions, either to use the university search engine, or to manually change the url to include the proxy information. Neither solution is particularly user friendly, but as luck would have it, the latter gives us the possibility to create a bookmarklet that gives you one-click access.

Using the bookmarklet

  • Drag the below text “A-Z Access” to your bookmarks.
    A-Z Access
  • Look up a paper that isn’t open access (even though it should be), such as this one of mine: http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/978-3-642-40501-3_46
  • Click the A-Z Access bookmarklet in your bookmarks
  • Login to your A-Z.lu online account (once you’re logged in this will be skipped automatically)
  • You will be taken to the page where you can download the paper (if A-Z has access to it of course)

Background

The bookmarklet works very simple, it looks at the hostname of the current window and adds the required proxy url bit. Many thanks to Redditor Untgradd who gave the solution to add the proxy after the TLD (the .com bit) rather than at the end of the entire url.

The code:

javascript:void(window.location.hostname=window.location.hostname+'.proxy.bnl.lu')

Big Humanities: Big Questions, Little Answers

In his recently published book The Big Humanities: Digital Humanities/Digital Laboratories (2017, Routledge), Richard Lane promises to discuss the digital humanities (dh) by looking at three things specifically: 1) an analysis of dh collaborations as labs, 2) arguing for a hacker culture in dh, and 3) discussing the transformed practices of literary studies specifically. Especially the first point made me curious to read the book, as it is closely related to my own PhD research in which dh labs are one type of collaboration I am looking into. However, the book provides little news for either of the three topics. In this blog post I will look a bit at what Lane promises to do and what he ends up doing.

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Digital Humanities and Digital Physics

For my PhD research I will be using Galison’s concept of the “trading zone” to describe digital history projects where historians collaborate with people from other backgrounds. In his book, Image & Logic, Galison developed this concept to describe the development of the field of physics in the period of 1880s-1970s where physicists of the “image” tradition (taking photos to discover new elements) and physicists of the “logic” tradition (using statistics to discover new elements) ended up working together. What is of interest to me, besides his development of the “trading zone” concept, is that automatisation of work plays a key role in this development, and from the 1940s on the computer starts playing a prominent role, shaping the field of physics. What becomes apparent from reading this book is that the integration of the computer in physics was by no means a natural inclusion, but a process of debate and negotiation of what it meant to “do” physics and what kind of knowledge can be acquired using computers. In this blogpost I’ll briefly touch upon this debate[1]Since Image & Logic is an 850 page book, I can in no way summarise this satisfactorily in a blogpost, but I will do my best., as described in Galison’s work, and consider parallels with the debates in digital humanities (dh). Assuming dh describes a transition to include computers in humanities work[2]Zaagsma, G. (2013). On Digital History. BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review, 128(4), 3. http://doi.org/10.18352/bmgn-lchr.9344, maybe we can describe this transition of physics as “digital physics“.[3]Not to be confused with the field of physics that describes the universe in terms of information https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_physics

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References   [ + ]

1. Since Image & Logic is an 850 page book, I can in no way summarise this satisfactorily in a blogpost, but I will do my best.
2. Zaagsma, G. (2013). On Digital History. BMGN – Low Countries Historical Review, 128(4), 3. http://doi.org/10.18352/bmgn-lchr.9344
3. Not to be confused with the field of physics that describes the universe in terms of information https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_physics

A Republic of Emails: What are the contents?

In a previous blogpost, I introduced the project A Republic of Emails, where we created a dataset of the 30k Hillary Clinton Emails by scraping Wikileaks. Now that we have the data, we can start exploring with what I like to call the W-questions: What is the collection about? Where do described events take place? When did these events occur? Who are the actors involved? In this second blogpost, we will look at what the emails from the Hillary Clinton corpus are about. I will describe how we prepared the data to analyse a) the raw text, b) normalised text, and c) entities in the text (named entity recognition). Finally, we will look at a small subset of the emails using Voyant Tools. For all the steps I will point to the respective scripts on our GitHub so you can reproduce the project.

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