During last week’s session of our digital humanities (DH) course, we discussed the definition of DH, which has been a long and drawn-out debate among DHers for decades. From that class conversation, others dissected the meaning of both humanities and digital, and I found myself at odds with a few assertions:
“The humanities are opinions, not science.”
“The humanities are not social science.”
These are not verbatim quotes, but rather the gist of what I remember being said.
True, the humanities are not “science,” nor are they necessarily social science, but are they not at times scientific? Do we not use the scientific method to develop our hypotheses, to help shape our methodologies? In doing history, our current knowledge and our worldviews will inform how we think about history, but the historian is supposed be objective, not delineating personal opinions. However, history can be subjective, which the objective historian understands. We must shed all of our preconceptions and immerse ourselves into the distant lands of the past to fully engage in what things meant then. History is about perspective, indeed, but what’s most important are the perspectives of the people of the time being studied. Just objectivity is necessary for historians, and perhaps all humanities, so is objectivity for the scientific method. Perhaps they are intertwined.
This leads me to the next point. Why is it so important to differentiate humanities from the social sciences, which also use scientific methods? Humanities don’t rely on just close readings of texts, but they quantify and qualify data. Computational techniques and analysis, for instance, have significant effects on all disciplines, not just the sciences, whether social, hard, or “pure” sciences. In other words, humanities use the same tools as the social sciences, which enriches our studies, research, and findings. Again, I use history as an example: it is interdisciplinary, and it should be that way to assist in informing us about the past and understanding the human condition. It’s more than telling a story, it’s a matter of placing meaning and using a variety of disciplines as tools for creating categories of analysis. For instance, in studying “last dying speeches,” which are accounts of criminals last words before being executed in early modern England, psychology comes into play to inform our understanding of the power of apologies, as the public spectacle and expectation and then delivery of an apology from a transgressor helped to heal the body social. Surveying the demographics of criminals detailed in the Ordinaries’ Accounts, perhaps come from sociology. Ultimately, I would argue that interdisciplinarity deepens and supplements such a study, because, after all, history is not just retelling stories with facts and dates. It’s about crafting understanding and enhancing our knowledge, enlightening us about the past as well as ourselves, which is aided by a toolbox filled of infinite measures that extend beyond the humanities.
DH is interdisciplinary as well, and it seems that it’s not so much what you study, but rather what you do with it. Any medievalist (or early modernist as seen here) can have a blog or a website. But what does that website do? What’s its purpose? For our DH class we read and discussed the notion that DH is about “building,” using Stephen Ramsay’s point that “If you are not making anything, you are not…a digital humanist.” This seems quite true, but I think it goes beyond building and comes down to the idea of sharing. Mark Sample elucidates this rather well in his blog. As the digital landscape redefines how we produce, disseminate, and consume scholarship, and the boundaries by which we share knowledge are, for lack of a better term, boundless. This allows for us to engage in scholarly conversations, and perhaps these conversations are what scholarship is about: sharing ideas, re-evaluating our current knowledge through new evidence that is brought forth by other scholars. Digital Humanities, then, broadens the arena for discussion.