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‘Doing’ Digital Humanities: Reflections on a project on Online Feminism in India

A core concern of Digital Humanities research has been that of method. The existing discourse around the field of DH assumes a move away from traditional humanities and social sciences research methods to more open, collaborative and iterative forms of scholarship spanning some conventional and other not so conventional practices and spaces. In this guest blog post, Sujatha Subramanian reflects upon her experience of undertaking a research study on online feminist activism in India and its various challenges.

When the chance to do a research project on Digital Humanities presented itself, I deliberated over the possible topics I could explore. As a student of Media and Cultural Studies, I have on previous occasions studied digital technology and online spaces. Those studies, however, were simply “social sciences” research. I had little understanding of what Digital Humanities as a discipline entailed. While I admit that I am still unable to come up with a concrete definition of the same, the process of conducting the research and the DH workshop organised at CIS led to some clarity about the field and methods of Digital Humanities.

Before beginning the research I asked myself what could I, a feminist media scholar, learn from Digital Humanities and how could I contribute to the same. I wondered if the lack of familiarity with technological skills such as design, statistics and coding- knowledge that I saw as prerequisite to Digital Humanities-  meant that I couldn’t really engage with the field of Digital Humanities. While grappling with this question, I chanced upon the #TransformDH project. At the heart of the project is the question- “How can digital humanities benefit from more diverse critical paradigms, including race/ethnic studies and gender/sexuality studies?” [1]

In a blogpost titled “Queer Studies and the Digital Humanities”,[2] the author states,

"...a lot of queer/critical ethnic studies/similar scholars also lack access to the resources that make it easier to combine digital and humanities work. That might not only mean physical access and training in technology, but also the time to add yet another interdisciplinary element to a experience suggests that many, many politicized queers and people of color engaged in scholarly work in and out of the academy do use digital tools and think critically about them and even create them; they just don’t necessarily do so under the sign of the digital humanities."

As someone who used the space of Facebook to initiate conversations around feminist issues and was actively engaged in fighting the sexism entrenched in social media spaces, was I then already “doing” digital humanities? I reflected that since feminist activism finds such little space in mainstream media, a worthwhile Digital Humanities project could be to document and archive the contemporary feminist movement and the ways in which it is transforming our understanding of the digital space. As part of the project, I explored how feminist activists have revolutionised digital spaces for the creation of alternative public spheres, constituted of not just women but also other marginalised communities. The project gave me the opportunity to study the inclusions and exclusions facilitated by the digital space, with questions of gender, sexuality, class, caste and disability as central to the enquiry. The project also raised questions regarding popular assumptions of digital space as a disembodied, liberatory space free of power relations by exploring gendered and sexualised violence that these feminist activists face.

While the political vision of my project was clear, my methodological skills needed a little honing. The DH workshop organised at CIS was of great help in this regard. The feedback received at the workshop was instrumental in recognising the importance of “big data”. As a feminist researcher, life histories, personal narratives and stories remain important sources of knowledge for me. However, in studying social movements and their impact, the limitations of such methodological tools are revealed. Understanding how a feminist activist with 11,000 followers on Twitter offers important insight into public discourse is contingent on the ability to analyse such data. The workshop also helped me in realising that in my definition of activism, I had precluded many feminist engagements with digital technology, including the efforts of feminist Wikipedians, feminist gamers and feminist encounters with STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). While these remain the shortcomings of my project, the workshop helped in foregrounding the scope for collaboration that lies at the heart of all our projects. A discussion of my project alongside Ditilekha’s project on LGBT Youth and Digital Citizenship brought to fore the intersections as well as the different activist strategies employed by the two movements in their use of  social media. Sohnee’s project on the gender gap on Wikipedia underlines that an important aspect of working towards a feminist epistemology, and changing the relations of power that characterise technology, are issues of access and participation. Rimi’s use of a text mining tool to analyse the different patterns of language on confessions pages highlighted the value of such technological tools in socio-cultural analysis. The workshop which brought together scholars from different disciplinary backgrounds, helped in highlighting shared concerns of methodology, content and political visions and prompted discussions on innovative approaches to conducting research. This attempt at collaborative knowledge production- whether it is the constant communication between the research scholars through email, the workshop with the scholars and the mentors or even the dissemination of our reports on an open access site- has been the essence of my engagement with Digital Humanities. The ethos of collaboration as central to Digital Humanities is reflected in Joan Shaffer’s definition of Digital Humanities as “...a community interested in collaborative projects and sharing knowledge across disciplines." [3] This ethos of learning from fellow researchers and working together to create accessible knowledge is something that I shall carry forward to my future research endeavours.




Sujatha Subramanian is an M.Phil. Scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai. This research study was part of a series of six projects commissioned by HEIRA-CSCS, Bangalore as part of a collaborative exercise on mapping the Digital Humanities in India. See here for more on this initiative.


Sneha PP

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