Digital Humanities and the Problem of Definition

The Digital Humanities as a field that still eludes definition has been the subject of much discourse and writing. This blog post looks at this issue as one of trying to approach the field from a disciplinary lens, and the challenges that this may pose to the attempts at a definition.

Much has been said and written about the Digital Humanities as an emergent field or domain of enquiry; the plethora of departments being set up all across the world, well mostly the developed world is testimony to the claimed innovative and generative potential of the field.   However, as outlined in the earlier blog-post, the problem of definition still persists. As Mathew Kirschenbaum points out, the growing literature around the ‘what is Digital Humanities’ question may well be a genre in itself.[1] While the predominant narrative seems to be in terms of defining what Digital Humanities, or to take it a step back, what the ‘digital’ allows you to do, with respect to enabling or facilitating certain kinds of research and pedagogy, a pertinent question still is that of what it allows you to ‘be’. Digital Humanities has been alternatively called a method, practice and field of enquiry, but scholars and practitioners in many instances have stopped short of fully embracing it as a discipline. This is an interesting development given the rapid pace of its institutionalisation - from being located in existing Humanities or Computational Sciences or Media Studies departments it has now claimed functional institutional spaces of its own, with not just interdisciplinary research and teaching but also other creative and innovative knowledge-making practices. The field is slowly gaining credence in India as well, with several institutions pursuing questions around core questions within the fold of Digital Humanities.

So is the disciplinary lens inadequate to understand this phenomenon, or is it too early for a field still considered in some ways rather incipient. The growth of the academic discipline itself is something of a fraught endeavour; as debates around the scientific revolution and Enlightenment thought have established. To put it in a very simple manner, the story of academic disciplines is that of training in reason.[2]

Andrew Cutrofello says “In academia, a discipline is defined by its methodological rigor and the clear boundaries of its field of inquiry. Methods or fields are criticized as being "fuzzy" when they are suspected of lacking a discipline. In a more straightforwardly Foucauldian sense, the disciplinary power of academic disciplines can be located in their methods for producing docile bodies of different sorts.”[3] The problem with defining Digital humanities may lie in it not conforming to precisely this notion of the academic discipline, and changing notions of the function of critique when mediated through the digital.

However a prevalent mode of understanding Digital Humanities has been in terms of the disciplinary concerns it raises for the humanities themselves; this works with the assumption that it is in fact a newer, improved version or extension of the humanities. The present mapping exercise too began with the disciplinary lens, but instead of enquiring about what the Digital Humanities is, it looked at what the ‘digital’ has brought to, changed or appropriated in terms of existing disciplinary concerns within the humanities. If one has to look at the digital itself as a state of being or existence, then one needs to understand this new techno-social paradigm much better. Prof. Amlan Dasgupta, at the School of Cultural Texts and Records at Jadavpur University in Kolkata sees this as a useful way of going about the problem of trying to arrive at a definition of the field — one is to understand the history of the term, from its inherited definition in the Anglo-American context, and the second is to distinguish it from what he calls the current state of ‘digitality’ — where all cultural objects are being now being conceived of as ‘digital’ objects. In the Indian context, the question of digitality also becomes important from the perspective of technological obsolescence - where there is resistance to discontinuing or phasing out the use of certain kinds of technology; either for lack of access to better ones or simply because one finds other uses for it. Prof. Dasgupta interestingly terms this a ‘culture of reuse’, one example of this being the typewriter which for all practical purposes has been displaced by the computer, but still finds favour with several people in their everyday lives. The question of livelihood is still connected to some of these technologies, so much so that they are very much a part of channels of cultural production and circulation, and even when they cease to become useful they have value as cultural artefacts. We therefore inhabit at the same time, different worlds, or as he calls it ‘a multi-layered technological sphere’. The variedness of this space, and the complexities or ‘degrees of use’ of certain technologies or technological objects is what further determines the nature of this space. This complicates the questions of  access to technology or the ‘digital divide’ which have been and still are some of the primary approaches to understanding technology, particularly in the Global South.  The need of the hour is to be able to distinguish between this current state of digitality that we are in, and what is meant by the Digital Humanities. It may after all be a set of methodologies rather than a subject or discipline in itself — the question is how it would help us understand the ‘digital’ itself much better and the new kinds of enquiries it may then facilitate about this space we now inhabit.

One of the important points of departure, from the traditional humanities and later humanities computing itself as mentioned in the earlier blog, has been the blurring of boundaries between content, method and object/s of enquiry. The ‘process’ has become important, as illustrated by the iterative nature of most Digital Humanities projects and the discourse itself which emphasises the ‘making’ and ‘doing’ aspects of research as much as the content itself. Tool-building as a critical activity rather than as mere facilitation is an important part of the knowledge-making process in the field. In conjunction with this, Dr. Moinak Biswas, at the Department of Film Studies at Jadavpur University, thinks that the biggest changes have been in terms of the collaborative nature of knowledge production, based on voluntarily sharing or creating new content through digital platforms and archives, and crucially the possibility of now imagining creative and analytical work as not separate practices, but within in a single space and time. He cites an example from film, where ‘image’ making and critical practice can both be combined on one platform, like the online archive or the Vectors journal for example to produce new layers of meaning around existing texts. The aspect of critique is important here, given that the consistent criticism about the field has been the ambiguity of its social undertaking; its critical or political standpoint or challenge to existing theoretical paradigms. Most of the interest around the term has been in very instrumental terms, as a facilitator or enabler of certain kinds of digital practice. Alan Liu further explains this in what he sees as the role of the Digital Humanities in cultural criticism when he says, “Beyond acting in an instrumental role, the digital humanities can most profoundly advocate for the humanities by helping to broaden the very idea of instrumentalism, technological, and otherwise. This could be its unique contribution to cultural criticism’’.[4] While the move away from computational analysis as a technique to facilitate humanities research is quite apparent, the disciplinary concerns here still seem to be latched onto those of the traditional humanities.

While reiterating some of these core questions within Digital Humanities; Dr. Souvik Mukherjee and Dr. Padmini Ray Murray, at the Department of English, Presidency University, Kolkata speak of the problem of locating the field in India, where work is presently only being done in a few small pockets.  The lack of a precise definition, or location within an established disciplinary context are some reasons why a lot of work that could come within the ambit of Digital Humanities is not being acknowledged as such; conversely it also leads to the problem of projects on digitisation or studies of digital cultures/cyber cultures being easily conflated with Digital Humanities. Related to this also is the absence of self-identifying ‘digital humanists’ (a problem outlined in the earlier blog, which will be explored in detail further in this series). More importantly, the lack of an indigenous framework to theorise around questions of the digital is also an obstacle to understanding what the field entails and the many possibilities it may offer in the Indian context. This is a problem not just of the Digital Humanities, but in general for modes of knowledge production in the social sciences and humanities that have adopted Western theoretical constructs. One could also locate in some sense the present crisis in disciplines within this problem. Gopal Guru and Sundar Sarukkai explicate this very issue when they talk about the absence of ‘experience as an important category of the act of theorising’ because of the privileging of ideas in Western constructs of experience.  This is also reflective of the bifurcation between theory and praxis in traditional social sciences or humanities epistemological frameworks which borrow heavily from the West. Digital Humanities while still to arrive at a core disciplinary concern, seems to point towards the problem of this very demarcation by addressing the aspect of practice as a very focal point of its discourse.

Even from diverse disciplinary perspectives, at present the understanding of Digital Humanities is that it facilitates new modes of humanistic enquiry, or enables one to ask questions that could not be asked earlier. As Prof. Dasgupta reiterates, it is no longer possible to imagine humanities scholarship outside of the ‘digital’ as such, as that is the world we inhabit. However, while some of the key conceptual questions for the humanities may remain the same, it is the mode of questioning that has undergone a change — we need to re-learn questioning or question-making within this new digital sphere, which is in some sense also a critical and disciplinary challenge. While this does not resolve the problem of definition, it does provide a useful route into thinking of what would be questions of Digital Humanities, particularly in the Indian context.


  1. Cutrofello, Andrew, “Practicing Philosophy as a Discipline of Resistance’’ Discipline and Critique: Kant, Poststructuralism and the Problem of Resistance State University of New York Press: 1994 pp 116 - 136.
  2. Kirshchenbaum, Mark “What is Digital Humanities and What is it Doing in English Departments”, Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Mathew K. Gold, University of Minnesota Press: 2012  pp 4-11,
  3. Liu, Alan in “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities”, Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Mathew K. Gold, University of Minnesota Press: 2012  pp 492 – 502
  4. Guru, Gopal and Sundar  Sarukkai, The Cracked Mirror: An Indian Debate on Experience and Theory, Oxford University Press, 2012, pp 1-8.

[1]. See Mark Kirshchenbaum “What is Digital Humanities and What is it Doing in English Departments”, Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Mathew K. Gold, (University of Minnesota Press, 2012 )

[2]. This is a rather simple abstraction of ideas about discipline and reason as they have stemmed from Enlightenment thought. For a more elaborate understanding see ‘Conflict of the Faculties' (1798) by Immanuel Kant and ‘Discipline and Punish' (1975) by Michel Foucault. For more on Kant’s essay see The Conflict of Konigsberg by Anirudh Sridhar.

[3]. See Andrew Cutrofello in ‘Discipline and Critique: Kant, Poststructuralism and the Problem of Resistance (State University of New York Press, 1994).

[4]. See Alan Liu in “Where is Cultural Criticism in the Digital Humanities”, Debates in the Digital Humanities, ed. Mathew K. Gold, (University of Minnesota Press, 2012).

Note: This blog post draws primarily from conversations with faculty at Jadavpur University and Presidency University, Kolkata, both of whom offer courses on Digital Humanities.

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Sneha PP

P. P. Sneha is Programme Officer with the Researchers at Work (RAW) programme at CIS. She can be reached at <[email protected]>.