Digital Humanities Definitions by Type

If there are two things that academia doesn’t need, they are another book about Darwin and another blog post about defining the digital humanities. But it’s always right around this time of year that I find myself preparing for my digital history course and being pulled down the contemplative rabbit hole about how describe the nature of the digital humanities to a new and varied audience. But rather than create my own definition, I wanted one cobbled together from everyone else.

There have been some very good digital humanities definition pieces recently (those by Rafael Alvarado and Matt Kirschenbaum spring to mind). But many of the longer ones, as smart and provocative as they are, often muddy the introductory waters more than clarify them. Sometimes that’s precisely their point, but I’m always on the lookout for a reductionist, well-precipitated overview mixture for my class (and for myself, when I get confused) that can be progressively dissolved into a more homogenous solution. I wanted a list of acceptable DH definitions that was as simple as possible—but no simpler—from the community itself. Even better, i wanted a shortlist of types of definitions that sketch out the contours of the field.

For this kind of exercise, there’s no better resource than the TAPoR wiki on “How do you Define Humanities Computing / Digital Humanities?“, which presents pithy definitions from ~170 people, who for one reason or another were compelled (thankfully) to offer their own take on the nature of digital humanities or humanities computing. The format surely encouraged sound bites rather than nuanced formulations, but the quick take still reveals the sentiment of the community—perhaps better than longer essays would have. What follows is my categorization of the responses from 2011. I raced through these at the end of #clioF11(tues)’s first meeting, so I post them here mostly as a reference for my whiplashed students. But I’d love to know if anyone else finds it useful.

At first glance, it appeared that the fascinating but disparate variety of responses more closely resembled an unruly pile of pick-up sticks than any useful guide to the DH community. After a bit more perusing, however, i found that the definitions could be cleanly sorted into a relatively small number of categories. Needless to say, my scheme is neither the only possible grouping, nor necessarily the best. But i found mutually exclusive sorting to be simple and easy, perhaps an indicator that i wasn’t being too arbitrary or forceful. Surprisingly few definitions landed on the boundaries between categories. In those cases i filed them under what i took to be the predominant sentiment. A handful responses that did not seem to really say anything (besides explicit refusals to offer a definition) were left uncategorized (my working label was “what?”).

Due to a few tricky category decisions, categorical gray areas (though i tried to minimize possible overlap), and arithmetic failure, the numbers themselves are meaningless as precise counts. But i think that they are rather suggestive and illustrative as to how the Wiki contributors see the field. What’s most interesting is how the relatively few categories themselves grew organically from the responses—with what i consider very little invention on my part.

The Categories (and some observations)

55 – variation on “the application of technology to humanities work”

22 – working with digital media or a digital environment

15 – minimize the difference between DH and humanities

12 – umbrella or blanket nature of DH label; issues that humanists now face

12 – using digital AND studying digital

12 – refusals to define the term

10 – methods AND community

9 – digitization / archives

9 – studying the digital

The most popular response—the application of technology to humanities work—was unsurprising to say the least. It is perhaps worth noting that phrases like “application of technology to humanities work” were about 3 times as common as those like “intersection of technology and the humanities”. Either way, i still can’t shake a vague unease about defining DH in such broad technology terms (the umbrella responses described below focused less on technology per se), and i think it raises important questions about the nature of how much technology (given its pervasive nature) needs to explicitly figure into the digital humanities. As other respondents hinted: isn’t everyone using technology in the humanities these days? And increasingly so? Perhaps it’s innovative use that’s important (as Doug Reside suggests), but isn’t innovation always required in scholarly pursuits? Or maybe we just need to be technologically innovative w/r/t the analog humanities? But does a technology emphasis detract from the humanistic value of our work, and shift the focus to research methodologies rather than results?

Reluctance to foreground research (dare i say computing?) over communication and workflows perhaps led some respondents to emphasize the use of digital media, or publishing and collaborating in new media environments. Though responses took the nature of “the digital” as crucial to DH, ranging widely across the spheres of publishing and networking within humanistic scholarship. Obviously there is a fine (if extant) line between using new media and using technology. But i think the responses—in both spirit and language—warrant separate categories between using technology and using digital media, even if that difference can be considered one of emphasis rather than of kind.

The next cluster of four categories, most explicitly the (usually glib) refusals, foreground the difficulty in crafting any kind of definition. Others responded more thoroughly, and more helpfully, but refused to differentiate digital humanities from the humanities at large. This is a valid point, but to hold this position is to suggest that DHers don’t have any different kind of concerns (methodological, theoretical, practical, professional) than anyone else in the humanities. This doesn’t seem to be true right now. Truer to the status quo, in my opinion, were the several responses in that same category that emphasized the (ideally) fleeting nature of any difference between the digital humanities and the humanities—that is, digital humanities as the future of the humanities; different in some ways now, but not fundamentally so. Or, perhaps digital humanities is simply akin to new media in that its core characteristics ride the wave of technological change.

The responses I have labeled as umbrella- or blanket-like, I think are some of the most helpful because they pursued a discriminatory inclusivity—a middle ground between open arms and gate-keeping—that embraced the variety of issues that digital humanists like to talk about (in addition to new research methods and digital media of the other categories) like copyright, access to information, curation and use of digital resources, publishing, and so on, without making it inordinately difficult to think of something that wasn’t included under the DH tent.

A solid group of responses must be located at the intersection of using the digital and studying the digital. In a way, this group overlaps with the “applying technology” group, but are singled out here for the insistence that studying the effects of the digital is just as important as using it. These two efforts might well be two shows under the same DH tent with different performers and audiences. Whether this is mutually beneficial or distracting remains an open question, i think.

Not surprisingly, community and methodology tended to get mentioned together; i wouldn’t characterize any definition as pointing to one without the other. But it isn’t just methods that make the community, either: respondents rightly and broadly construed “methods” as ranging over various aspects of research, teaching, and broader communication, all the while embracing the variety of methodological approaches that their colleagues take. To me, this suggests that the community has some autonomous existence outside of methodological similarities.

Responses that foregrounded digitization or studying the digital (without consideration for the affect on humanities scholarship itself) thankfully received the fewest nods. At least as formulated on the wiki, these definitions were the most restrictive, and in many ways fundamentally contrary to the general sentiment of the community about what kinds of efforts really characterize the digital humanities. This is not to say that digitization efforts and the corresponding challenges are not to be included as part of the digital humanities (they are!), but that a useful definition must be more inclusive.

Some representative (usually short) examples of the categories:

some variation of “the application of technology to the humanities”

The intersection of humanities and computer technologies. -Lorna Richardson, UCL, UK

Digital humanities is the intersection of work in the humanities (research, teaching, writing) with technology (tools, networks, interactions), when the practitioner is consciously exploring a humanistic subject and a technological method, at the same time. -Elli Mylonas, Brown University, United States

Digital Humanities are the application and the use of computing tecnologies for the research, teaching and investigation in the disciplines of the humanities. -Ali Albarran, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Mexico

5 responses included in the above category emphasized computing, such as

Using computational tools to do the work of the humanities. -John Unsworth, University of Illinois, USA

The theorizing, developing and application of/on computational techniques to humanities subjects. -Edward Vanhoutte, Centre for Scholarly Editing and Document Studies / Royal Academy of Dutch Language and Literature, Belgium

Use of digital media/medium/environment

Anything a Humanities scholar does that is mediated digitally, especially when such mediation opens discussion beyond a small circle of academic specialists. -David Wacks, University of Oregon, USA

The performance of humanities related activities in, through and with digital media. -Christopher Long, Penn State University, USA

For me, but this is very specific, Digital Humanities is to interconnect humanities researchers, software developers and infrastructure providers in order to contribute to the research and the research possibilties in this discipline. -Douwe Zeldenrust, Meertens Institute (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences), The Netherlands

Emphasis on its umbrella or blanket nature

I think of digital humanities as an umbrella term that covers a wide variety of digital work in the humanities: development of multimedia pedagogies and scholarship, designing & building tools, human computer interaction, designing & building archives, etc. DH is interdisciplinary; by necessity it breaks down boundaries between disciplines at the local (e.g., English and history) and global (e.g., humanities and computer sciences) levels. -Kathie Gossett, Old Dominion Univ, USA

We use “digital humanities” as an umbrella term for a number of different activities that surround technology and humanities scholarship. Under the digital humanities rubric, I would include topics like open access to materials, intellectual property rights, tool development, digital libraries, data mining, born-digital preservation, multimedia publication, visualization, GIS, digital reconstruction, study of the impact of technology on numerous fields, technology for teaching and learning, sustainability models, and many others. -Brett Bobley, NEH, United States


With extreme reluctance. -Lou Burnard, UK

I hate this question, and I don’t have an answer for it. Neither, it seems, does a large portion of the people who might be called Digital Humanists. I’ll leave it at that. -Justin Tonra, University of Virginia, USA

Studying the digital

An area of study that focuses on the digital in our daily lives–how we study, think, and interact. -Pollyanna Macchiano, US

Digital Humanities is the acknowledgement that human creativity is, for the moment, deeply entangled with our technological tools and networks. The media extensions cannot be separated from our reality. -Anastasia Salter, University of Baltimore, USA

Explicitly using digital AND studying digital

I see ‘Digital Humanities’ as an umbrella term for two different but related developments:1) Humanities Computing (the specialist use of computing technology to undertake Humanities research) and 2) the implications for the Humanities of the social revolution created by ubiquitous computing and online access. Since the late Noughties the latter seems to have become the driving force in DH with responsibility for much of the ‘boom’ in public interest and funding. -Leif Isaksen, University of Southampton, UK

Method AND community

It is both a methodology and a community. -Jason Farman, University of Maryland, College Park, USA

Somewhere between a toolset and a mindset, to do DH is to confront the assumptions and implications of the long analog history of the word. -Matthew Fisher, UCLA, USA

The digital humanities is a name claimed by a community of those interested in digital methodologies and/or content in the humanities. -Rebecca Davis, National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education, United States

Minimal difference between DH and humanities

We don’t distinguish digital sociology or digital astronomy, so why digital humanities? Just because computers are involved doesn’t mean the basic nature of the subject area is any different than it has been been traditionally.

Digital Humanities is, increasingly, just Humanities – as far as I’m concerned. New tools lead to new methodologies, new perspectives, and new questions that all humanists should be aware of and concerned with. -Benjamin Albritton, Stanford University, USA

Humanities gone digital and vice versa. -Anna Caprarelli, università degli studi della Tuscia (Viterbo), Italy

5 included in the above category emphasized the fleeting nature of any present difference

A name that marks a moment of transition; the current name for humanities inquiry driven by or dependent on computers or digitally born objects of study; a temporary epithet for what will eventually be called merely Humanities -Mark Marino, University of Southern California, USA

Digital Humanities is what humanities will be in the future. It is public, dialogical, collaborative and made of collectives. It allows for remixing and re-imagining how we think and analyze traditional forms of knowledge creation, knowledge sharing and knowledge storage -Jade E. Davis, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA

###Focus on Digitization and Archives

Digital libraries are a great example of an outcome of Digital Humanities. The interaction and combination of the new digital era with history, librarianship, literature, etc. gives a wider frame for researchers of all different branches to work in. Now the full texts of important writers are just a click away! -Ines Jerele, National and University Library, Slovenia, Slovenia

Developing tools and workflows to create comprehensive, interoperable, and innovative digital resources. -Jennifer Stertzer, Papers of George Washington, University of Virginia, USA

So what?

The categories here are hardly surprising. More interesting, to me at least, was that one needs only a handful of categories to cleanly parse so many formulations; and these categories deliberately highlighted rather subtle differences in definitions.

Even if attempts at constructing (and reading) definitions grow tired, periodically taking the pulse of the DH community seems worthwhile in that it reflects both recent and future developments in how the field is being shaped by those who consider itself its practitioners. Scholarly legitimacy, for which DH work seems continually reaching, requires some disciplinary boundaries, at least for now. Without it, people who will make important judgments and decisions about our scholarship, funding, and jobs cannot properly evaluate our proposed or completed work (hence Matt Kirschenbaum’s apt definition of DH as a “term of tactical convenience”). Feeling out boundaries is not always fun. I admit that I vacillate between wanting to draw some disciplinary lines in the sand, to pee on some research hydrants, and to simply throw up my hands in the face of an utterly pointless and futile debate.

The relatively few categories suggest some important questions: Are all of the definitions and their crucial qualities (community, communication, methodology, digitization, etc) worth equal emphasis? Are some more representative of “the field” as it is or as it should be? Perhaps the DH label has gotten enough traction within the broader community that the more pressing question is: what should NOT be included within the big tent of the digital humanities? That’s the subject for a different essay, of course.

Although I haven’t attempted a comparison to 2010, my sense from the definitions (especially with the many references to digital media and studying the digital) was that the field seems to be sending out tendrils in all directions, and in particular moving away from its original Humanities Computing roots. I couldn’t make a cruder measure, but i found it interesting that “computing” appears about 30 times among 170 total responses in 2011, and about 40 times among 70 total responses in 2010.

In the end

I must tip my cap to Eric Forcier, whose reply adroitly eschews disciplinary rigor in favor of admirably capturing the spirit of the DH community. I love the characterization DH as an ephemeral, seemingly idiosyncratic curiosity that either attracts or repels people, and often changes them fundamentally:

When I first applied to this grad program, my understanding of what DH was all about was crystalline in its purity. Not so today. My idea of DH is that it’s sort of like a highway oil slick on a sunny day. When you look at the slick, depending on the angle, you might get a psychedelic kaleidoscope of reflected colours; if you’re lucky you might spot your reflection in it; then again, all you might see is darkness. And if you feel compelled to step in it, don’t be surprised if you slip. Those stains will not come out. -Eric Forcier, University of Alberta, Canada