Discipline or a Collection of Methods? DH Are Both and Neither!

The other day, I started a poll on Twitter and asked the community the following question: Are the Digital Humanities an academic discipline or a collection of methods? Are they both or neither? The result was not surprising, because the community does obviously not agree on this issue. And I admit that the question was knowingly, unfairly asked, because the voters had no chance to explain their position. With the result of the poll in mind, I would like to present my position and hope that I will give some new impulses for the long-lasting discussion.

Most digital humanists I have met in the last five years, have one thing in common: They identify themselves as representatives of the subjects they have studied. The “digital” part was added additionally as a result of specific research interests or preferred computational working practices. If you read this and wonder about the observation, ask yourself: Why do I use the (digital) methods I use? Do I call myself a “Digital Humanist?”

I describe myself as a historian, a theologian, or a humanist that is highly interested in (and working with) computational techniques and digital methods. This makes a lot of sense to me, because I can classify my research in a disciplinary way and, additionally, inform myself about digital working methods of other humanistic disciplines in order to adapt them for my own research if necessary. This underlines the cooperative character of humanists going digital. We need each other. We need the inspiration from others to start a fruitful and creative research in our “home base.” In my opinion, DH can therefore not be a discipline on its own. DH as a discipline would exclude scholars like me and would absorb the processing of certain disciplinary questions into their field of work. In a strict interpretation that would mean: “them and us!” I’m very relieved that only 3 people voted for the “discipline” option, but I’m also truly interested in their strict interpreted position.

9 people voted for the “collection of methods” option. Great! That supports a clear position: “Digital Humanists are outstanding experts in their own discipline blessed with a deeper knowledge of computational techniques.” I was very happy that Martin Prell (@prellmartin) started a discussion with me on Twitter about this statement, which at the end felt to me like a professional dialogue among young nerds educated in scientific theory. After one could only be blissful and satisfied, sitting in the wing chair of one’s own library with a pipe in one’s mouth, delving into the theoretical work of the elderly. Oops, how did I just slip from a collection of methods to an old-fashioned theory so fast? Well, methods cannot exist without theory. Scholars must know why and how they do their research. There is no doubt that disciplinary theory can implement methods, which has always been an important key of progress. So why shouldn’t the established humanistic disciplines also consider digital methods?

DH have a methodological part – a total of 20 people (67%) voted for this position. But 11 of them also highlighted the disciplinary character of DH. As I said before, DH must not appear as an independent discipline in the canon of the humanities, not even for pragmatic reasons. But in fact, there is a dimension in the DH that exceeds the purely methodological part. The Interdisciplinary Center for Scientific Computing at the University of Heidelberg holds a position that seems to me to be very reasonable. It represents a model of DH 1.0 to 4.0. DH 1.0 means a basic use of digital technology like e-learning, etc. If scholars can switch on their computers, they already have made the first small step to be a Digital Humanist. DH 2.0 is the whole area of producing digital sources. Digitizing texts (or images or carpets or whatever), their public accessibility, and collecting research data are fundamental needs to encourage scholars and students to do researches in the field of DH. The next level is actually doing research by using these sources. Therefore, DH 3.0 expresses the competence to analyze the digital sources and research data with proper tools and with a deeper understanding of quantitative and mathematical contexts. Finally, this leads to the DH top level: DH 4.0 pursues own research interests and develops algorithms and tools out of them, which could also be interesting for DH 3.0, since it would be applied there. The term “Digital Humanities” underlines the interdependent processes and linking loops between the work fields of DH 2.0 to 4.0.

I think it’s a very likeable model, because it’s based on interdisciplinary cooperation. Algorithm and software developers can only benefit from it, if humanist scholars communicate innovative ideas, conscious of common progress and without the claim to “make some tool that can do it!” This collegial cooperative communication makes DH 4.0 to a kind of “meta-DH with a practical issue.” Humanists want to solve a research idea with computational techniques; developers want to solve it with a transferable impact for DH 3.0 projects. This leads back to the following question: “Is DH a scientific discipline or a (collection of) method(s)?” The loop between DH 3.0 and 4.0 makes it pretty clear. One side must develop methods, tools, modelling techniques, etc.; the other side must use it. Under this premise, DH 3.0 scholars need creative minds that work with DH 4.0 institutions or scholars on their research problems. DH 4.0 in turn doesn’t only need the specific humanistic research interest. It needs the inspiration and visionary view for a beneficial outcome for DH 3.0. In this case, DH 4.0 as interdisciplinary and cooperative developers can spread methods to monodisciplinary scholars. However, to make it a little bit more idealistic, DH 4.0 can integrate new methods into a strictly disciplinary canon of methods and bring considerable research progress to the different and independent departments. Out of those characteristics of DH, 4.0 grows an epistemological dimension for all humanistic disciplines.  DH is therefore not a discipline, but a new approach based on interdisciplinary cooperation to develop general approaches from concrete questions for DH 3.0. And suddenly, there is an epistemological/methodological dimension of DH, which each humanistic discipline must discuss for its own applications.

Cite this article as: Stefan Karcher, "Discipline or a Collection of Methods? DH Are Both and Neither!," in INFODITEX -BLOG, 2019-04-15, https://infoditex.hypotheses.org/1222.

Stefan Karcher

(Contact: stefan.karcher@theologie.uni-heidelberg.de; @streka on Twitter); I started using and working with digital methods of text analysis during the work on my doctoral thesis in theology (Homiletics and Church History). A bunch of autographs - more than 10.000 handwritten pages packed up messily in 20 boxes - led me to the question: "How would I ever overview these?" In fact, I didn't! But while I was sorting the documents, forms, letters, lecture manuscripts etc in a new classification scheme for literary remains (Nachlass Heinrich Bassermann), I thought a database and analyzing only the metadata could help to find the most important information and sources for my dissertation. So my reflections about digital humanities were born out of necessity. Meanwhile, I made a virtue out of that necessity. Since my graduation in the major subjects History and Theology in 2013, I work on a dissertation about Heinrich Bassermann (1849-1909) and his homiletic principles of academic sermons. Besides I'm employed as QMR and head of the examination office at the Faculty of Theology.

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