It’s a bit of stretch for this blog but since I sometimes write about ‘big’ data in the context of science, I’ve decided to include this piece on big data and the humanities. First, I looked up a definition for the humanities and it’s far broader than I expected, from the Wikipedia essay on the Humanities (Note: I have removed links),
The humanities are academic disciplines that study the human condition, using methods that are primarily analytical, critical, or speculative, as distinguished from the mainly empirical approaches of the natural sciences.
The humanities include ancient and modern languages, literature, history, philosophy, religion, and visual and performing arts such as music and theatre. Other humanities include social sciences, history, anthropology, area studies, communication studies, cultural studies, law and linguistics.
As for the digital humanities, here’s a brief description from the July 30, 2012 story about big data, the humanities, and Stéfan Sinclair, by Adam Bluestein for Fast Company,
In the burgeoning academic discipline of digital humanities, creating software tools is as important as getting published in a journal. To better understand what this means, take a peek at the pedagogical playbook of Stefan Sinclair, associate professor of digital humanities in McGill University’s Department of Languages, Literatures and Cultures.[Montréal, Québec, Canada] …
At the same time, he’s equipping a new generation of humanities students with the eclectic skill set and entrepreneurial spirit to take on a 21st century job market. …
FAST COMPANY: What is “digital humanities,” exactly?
STEFAN SINCLAIR: There’s a natural tendency to assume it’s a new field, but it’s actually been around for quite a long time. The first research combining computers and the humanities was in the 1940s, and a journal called Computers and Humanities started publishing in the 1960s. But there has been a lot of attention and momentum in the past 3 or 4 years that hasn’t been there before. The core of digital humanities is the critical exploration of how computers and technology can enhance but also influence our modes of research in traditional humanities.
My use of the word visualizing in the title for this posting differs from my general use of the term, i.e., make pictures/images from data (from the Bluestein article),
How does this kind of approach help us see things that we couldn’t before?
One thing that’s compelling about digital humanities is being able to ask questions at a scale you can’t ask without computers. Really, most humanities is very exclusionary–we don’t have time as humans to read a lot of text. So all English studies are a matter of excluding, choosing texts we’re interested in and leaving aside others. With computers, we can now ask questions of, say, all novels in the 19th century. Sometimes that’s called “distant reading”–as opposed to the more traditional literary practice of close reading. You can also combine close and distant reading, when you want to look at a few novels, but offer a comparison to a larger context of novels.
Digital humanities also encompasses a lot more than text. There is a lot of interest in game studies, for instance, and geospatial analysis that’s not what people in geography would do. An example of that is a project on the Republic of Letters–a long-distance intellectual community in the late 17th and 18th century in Europe and America–that maps the transferring of thoughts across geographical space, allowing you to visualize that and see things in generative ways.
Clearly, algorithm are influencing spheres of study and thought that would have been unthinkable recently for most of us, if not the pioneers of the 1940s. I’m glad to see Sinclair, towards the end of the article, discuss one of the dangers of digitizing humanities, i.e., turning the humanities into an hypothesis-proving endeavour (scientific method). From the Bluestein article,
I am particularly passionate about tools and methodologies that allow for the proliferation of perspectives–not to prove a hypothesis I have, but to see a text differently and ask different questions.
I was once asked to define my writing practice as part of a presentation. My answer (I’m sparing your 10 mins. of presentation) was this: asking questions.
You can find out more bout Stéfan Sinclair and his work here.