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The Ends of the Humanities Abstract – Interdisciplinary Ignorance

Next week I will be at The Ends of the Humanities, a conference organised by the University of Luxembourg from 10-13 September 2017, in Belval. This conference aims to “investigate the relationship between the humanities on the one hand, and ethics, cultural and social politics, the education system, the law, the economy, new technologies and other sciences, on the other”. As such it also includes a digital humanities track, to which I submitted a paper about knowledge asymmetry in interdisciplinary collaborations, to discuss how this asymmetry creates a power relation in digital humanities. See below the abstract for my paper.

Interdisciplinary Ignorance

Digital Humanities (DH) is concerned with the incorporation of digital methods in humanities research practices. Thus, DH aims to use methods, concepts, or tools from other disciplines to the benefit of humanities research, making it a form of methodological interdisciplinarity.[1]Klein, J. T. (2014). Interdisciplining Digital Humanities: Boundary Work in an Emerging Field. University of Michigan Press, online edition. To look into this interdisciplinarity, our research employs the concept of trading zones,[2]Galison, P. (1997). Image & logic: A material culture of microphysics. The University of Chicago Press. which we describe according to two dimensions proposed by Collins et al.:[3]Collins, H., Evans, R., and Gorman, M. (2007). Trading zones and inter- actional expertise. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 38(4):657–666. first the extent to which a trading zone forms a homogeneous or a heterogeneous group, and second the power relations in the forms of coercion.

Most authors reflecting on DH cite Svensson[4]Svensson, P. (2011). The digital humanities as a humanities project. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 11(1-2):42–60.
Svensson, P. (2012). Beyond the Big Tent. In Gold, M. K., editor, Debates in the Digital Humanities. University of Minnesota Press, online edition.
who characterizes it as heterogeneous and collaborative, to emphasise the aforementioned interdisciplinarity, as well as the positive nature of collaboration. In this paper we will critically examine the second dimension and ask how this power relation is affected by the lack of technological expertise from humanities scholars. In our interviews with historians in digital history projects, we found several examples of the project not meeting expectations. For example, in one project, the historians noted that the tool that was being developed was so unstable and slow it became unusable. A historian mentioned that they inquired about this problem:

”So what you get is that those [humanities] people say ’yes hello I want to be served’, and [the computer scientists] say ’yes no that server is for multiple experiments, you are one of the experiments, [end of discussion].’ ”

The PI of this project, also a historian, reflected on this:

”But in hindsight I think they should have said more about matters such as the really practical things such as computation capacity, server space, the stability of software, how that is managed, you need money for that too. We didn’t [allocate] budget for that in the project, as idiotic as that seems now.”

In short, the collaboration suffered from knowledge asymmetry;[5]Sharma, A. (1997). PROFESSIONAL AS AGENT: KNOWLEDGE ASYMMETRY IN AGENCY EXCHANGE. Academy of Management Review, 22(3):758–798. historians were unaware how the computer scientists would perform their tasks, and as a result lacked the power to properly negotiate a tool that would work to their satisfaction. This paper will therefore argue that knowledge asymmetry with respect to the technological aspects creates a power asymmetry in DH collaborations, resulting in a different type of trading zone than envisioned by DH authors.

References   [ + ]

1. Klein, J. T. (2014). Interdisciplining Digital Humanities: Boundary Work in an Emerging Field. University of Michigan Press, online edition.
2. Galison, P. (1997). Image & logic: A material culture of microphysics. The University of Chicago Press.
3. Collins, H., Evans, R., and Gorman, M. (2007). Trading zones and inter- actional expertise. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 38(4):657–666.
4. Svensson, P. (2011). The digital humanities as a humanities project. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 11(1-2):42–60.
Svensson, P. (2012). Beyond the Big Tent. In Gold, M. K., editor, Debates in the Digital Humanities. University of Minnesota Press, online edition.
5. Sharma, A. (1997). PROFESSIONAL AS AGENT: KNOWLEDGE ASYMMETRY IN AGENCY EXCHANGE. Academy of Management Review, 22(3):758–798.

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