Towards a hermeneutics of cross-disciplinary collaboration in the humanities

One of the defining characteristics of digital humanities is the emphasis on interdisciplinary collaboration.[1]Klein, J. T. (2014). Interdisciplining Digital Humanities: Boundary Work in an Emerging Field (online). University of Michigan Press. https://doi.org/10.3998/dh.12869322.0001.001[5]Spiro, L. (2012). “This Is Why We Fight”: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities. In M. K. Gold (Ed.), Debates in Digital Humanities (online). University of Minnesota Press. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/13 The different facets of digital humanities research, such as computer technology, data management, and humanistic inquiry, call for experts with different backgrounds to collaborate. But how to study or reflect on DH collaborations? In this post I introduce a blog series in which I will develop a vocabulary for collaborative DH.

The most common conception of digital humanities collaborations is as a digital and a humanities side, a collaboration between computational experts and humanities scholars.[2]Edmond, J. (2005). The Role of the Professional Intermediary in Expanding the Humanities Computing Base. Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, 20(3), 367–380. https://doi.org/10.1093/llc/fqi036 Digital humanities is then a ‘meeting place’ of these two sides.[3]Svensson, P. (2011). The digital humanities as a humanities project. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 11(1–2), 42–60. https://doi.org/10.1177/1474022211427367

The last 4 years, I have studied this meeting place, specifically focusing on how historians interact with computational experts in the context of digital history, and how this affects wider practices of historical scholarship. Since I will be defending soon, in April 2019, I wanted to share some of my conceptual work on this blog to give some insights into what I have been working on.

A vocabulary of collaborations

I recently spoke with an engineer who had been working with historians for over a decade, and upon hearing about my research noted this finally gave him a vocabulary to describe what he had been doing for long. This conversation me wonder how much of digital history is conducted without a framework to reflect on those practices. As a start, in this series I will discuss the concepts that I have developed in my thesis (without claiming my vocabulary is comprehensive or the only one possible).

In order to keep the theory I develop in my thesis digestible, I will give short descriptions of each concept in separate blog posts. I will skip most of the methodological matters and discussions of findings; if you are interested in those you are welcome to read my thesis after it’s finished! Over the next few months, you can expect posts on the following concepts.[4]I will add links to each post after publication.

  1. DH as collaborations
  2. Cross-disciplinarity in DH
  3. Disciplines and communities of practice
  4. Trading zones
  5. Mutual engagement
  6. Power relations
  7. Acculturation
  8. Brokering and interactional expertise
  9. Infrastructuring
  10. Drawing the field of collaborations

In this introductory post, I will first discuss why I argue it is fruitful to investigate digital history as collaborative practices.

DH as collaborations

A matter to clarify is why I emphasise collaborative practices to study DH.[6]While my PhD is about digital history specifically, I believe these arguments are relevant to digital humanities as well. I will mainly employ the shorthand “DH” to refer to both simultaneously. Is the most interesting DH work not found in those scholars who are able to do both the humanistic and the computational work?

When scholars use tools, as end-users, it has been argued that the choices made by developers affect the practices of scholars.[7]Manovich, L. (2013). Software takes command. Bloomsbury Academic.[8]van Dijck, J. (2010). Search engines and the production of academic knowledge. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 13(6), 574–592. https://doi.org/10.1177/1367877910376582[9]Stanfill, M. (2014). The interface as discourse: The production of norms through web design. New Media & Society, 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444814520873 Software emphasises or hides certain functionalities, or communicates functionalities in certain ways, thereby framing what scholarship seems possible. As such, there is an indirect interaction between scholars and computational experts. Even when scholars write software code themselves, this remains true, for they employ a computer language developed by others, and programming largely depends on importing packages developed by others.[10]Schmitt, É. (2016). Des humains dans la machine : la conception d’un algorithme de classification sémantique au prisme du concept d’objectivité. Sciences Du Design, 83–97. https://www.cairn.info/revue-sciences-du-design-2016-2-page-83.htm There is no way around viewing DH as a (in)direct interaction between scholars and computational experts, a meeting of the digital and the history. Yet within collaborations the epistemological and methodological tensions of DH become most apparent. In contrast with software tools or code, scholars can talk with their collaborators, and discuss their issues and experiments explicitly.

To study how collaborative DH affects practices of scholars, both within DH as beyond, then follows the theory of social construction of technology:

Technology is not an independent, non-social variable that has an ‘impact’ on society or culture. On the contrary, any technology is a set of social behaviours and a system of meanings. To restate the point: when we examine the `impact’ of technology on society, we are talking about the impact of one kind of social behaviour on another.[11]p. 42, Pfaffenberger, B. (1988). Fetishised Objects and Humanised Nature: Towards an Anthropology of Technology. Man, 23(2), 236–252. https://doi.org/10.2307/2802804

The study how DH is thus the study of “the impact of one kind of social behaviour on another”, where the social behaviour I focus on is the collaboration in the context of DH. By developing the framework in this blog series, I am to take a first step towards a hermeneutics of cross-disciplinary collaboration in the humanities to study and reflect on DH.

References   [ + ]

1. Klein, J. T. (2014). Interdisciplining Digital Humanities: Boundary Work in an Emerging Field (online). University of Michigan Press. https://doi.org/10.3998/dh.12869322.0001.001
2. Edmond, J. (2005). The Role of the Professional Intermediary in Expanding the Humanities Computing Base. Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, 20(3), 367–380. https://doi.org/10.1093/llc/fqi036
3. Svensson, P. (2011). The digital humanities as a humanities project. Arts and Humanities in Higher Education, 11(1–2), 42–60. https://doi.org/10.1177/1474022211427367
4. I will add links to each post after publication.
5. Spiro, L. (2012). “This Is Why We Fight”: Defining the Values of the Digital Humanities. In M. K. Gold (Ed.), Debates in Digital Humanities (online). University of Minnesota Press. http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/13
6. While my PhD is about digital history specifically, I believe these arguments are relevant to digital humanities as well. I will mainly employ the shorthand “DH” to refer to both simultaneously.
7. Manovich, L. (2013). Software takes command. Bloomsbury Academic.
8. van Dijck, J. (2010). Search engines and the production of academic knowledge. International Journal of Cultural Studies, 13(6), 574–592. https://doi.org/10.1177/1367877910376582
9. Stanfill, M. (2014). The interface as discourse: The production of norms through web design. New Media & Society, 1–16. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444814520873
10. Schmitt, É. (2016). Des humains dans la machine : la conception d’un algorithme de classification sémantique au prisme du concept d’objectivité. Sciences Du Design, 83–97. https://www.cairn.info/revue-sciences-du-design-2016-2-page-83.htm
11. p. 42, Pfaffenberger, B. (1988). Fetishised Objects and Humanised Nature: Towards an Anthropology of Technology. Man, 23(2), 236–252. https://doi.org/10.2307/2802804

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