What is DH?

Ever since someone came up with the idea of calling it Digital Humanities (which I dislike), various attempts have been made to tell people what this/these „Digital Humanities“ actually mean/s. My own explanation goes along these lines:

  1. DH is a research paradigm that encompasses all kind of research in the Humanities that gains (normally partly) its findings from applying computer-based procedures, practices, and tools. I am usually refering to Manfred Thaller who expressed this more elaborately. What is important to me, however, is the fact that DH in this understanding is pure Humanities scholarship as its objects and questions are those from the Humanities. I have always been thinking that any researcher should naturally look out for the very best methods and tools to conduct their research, i.e. those that serves best to find the answers he or she is looking for.
  2. DH also encompasses the design, development, and generalization of these computer-based procedures, practices, and tools as well as the study of their underlying theories and models. In this understanding, Digital Humanities is rather an auxiliary science (Hilfswissenschaft) located at the intersection between Humanities and Computer Science. Since its epistemological interest is particularly grounded in the functional question of this intersection, DH possesses, hence, its own objects and questions to study.

Focused on the Humanities field of history, I am discussing this in more detail in a forthcoming essay on „Historical Network Research, Digital History, and Digital Humanities“. There, I am proposing a descriptive model of my understanding of DH as follows (the model is inspired by Patrick Sahle’s „spheres“, [1]):

The scholarly landscape of Digital Humanities. An incomplete attempt.

The scholarly landscape of Digital Humanities. An incomplete attempt.

The model has two reading directions. From the outer level, its starting point is a specific Humanities‘ research problem which can be solved better or only by applying computer technology. Here, DH serves as an auxiliary science as it provides suitable tools and practices. From the inner, core level, however, the starting point is a methodological problem for which its applicability and generalization in Humanities‘ research is to be found (I am refering to an essay by Boonstra, Breure and Doorn well worth reading; [2]).

Digital Humanities in its generally accepted definitions encompasses the whole model including both view points.

My own research (or at least my standards) usually goes in a loop. It starts with a historical question that interests me or a hypothesis that I think needs to be tested. If required, appropriate and promising (only then), I am either re-using, customizing or even developing computer-based stuff (algorithms, tools etc.), i.e. penetrating into what I call the „interdisciplinary core“ of DH. Being happy with this (which means that the computer really aided me doing my research and answering my curious questions), I am turning directions and start generalizing my methodological ideas and findings to make them applicable and useful for others and other kinds of questions in historical research (sometimes beyond). In the understanding of the latter, I am also calling DH a „Transferwissenschaft“ [3].

The DH loop.

The DH loop.

Note: In „Historical Network Research, Digital History, and Digital Humanities“, I am also discussing other terms and terminology than „Digital Humanities“ which I personally don’t find appropriate. However, DH is widely used these days and it helps promoting the useful bits of what we are doing.

Not every current outcome of DH is useful, though. But trial and error is not the worst heuristics to find out what goes and what not.

[1] Patrick Sahle, „DH studieren! Auf dem Weg zu einem Kern- und Referenzcurriculum der Digital Humanities.“ DARIAH-DE Working Papers 1 (2013): 6.

[2] Onno Boonstra, Leen Breure, and Peter Doorn, “Past, present and future of historical information science,” Historical Social Research / Historische Sozialforschung 29, no. 2 (2004).

[3] Malte Rehbein, “Geschichtsforschung im digitalen Raum. Über die Notwendigkeit der Digital Humanities als historische Grund- und Transferwissenschaftwissenschaft.” In Papstgeschichte des hohen Mittelalters: digitale und hilfswissenschaftliche Zugangsweisen zu einer Kulturgeschichte Europas. Edited by K. Herbers and V. Trenkle, 2017.


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