Mapping the field of digital humanities

Posted by Sara Morais at Jun 11, 2013 12:40 PM |
This blog is the first in a series of blog entries evolving around digital humanities. As the research proceeds, arising questions will be addressed and attempted to map out, so that we are left with an annotated bibliography of the field which will help create parameters on how to approach research in that sector. In this first episode of the blog series, the introductory volume simply called Digital_Humanities (Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, Jeffrey Schnapp) will be combined with Patrik Svensson's Landscape of Digital Humanities, so as to assert what it is, we're dealing with, when talking about digital humanities.

Entering into the field of digital humanities, it quickly becomes clear that pinpointing an exact definition will be a difficult thing to do. Evolving from the traditional field of humanities, it still does not seem to be compliant to the same standards or discuss the same issues. The attempt to map out the field, hence, is just a collection of definitions which have no pretence of being overarching but do include some of the more cited authors, who have attempted to define the terms of research that digital humanities are based upon.

The recently published volume Digital_Humanities (Burdick et. al.: 2012), which is available freely online in an open-access edition1, provides a very well structured overview of the shift from humanities to digital humanities. The book states that, contrary to popular belief, humanities is not so much a field in crisis, but rather a field which is evolving to become more inclusive and thus relevant to everyday life. Within humanities research there has been a “fundamental shift in the perception of the core creative activities of being human, in which the values and knowledge of the humanities are seen as crucial for shaping every domain of culture and society” (Burdick et. Al: 2012) The book argues that with the digitalization of human life, the humanities have taken a turn away from mere text-based information and included media which allow for more collaborative and generative work in which the visual is fundamental.

While this book has interesting case studies and addresses questions of authorship, collaboration and alternative publishing, it serves well as an introduction into the field, but does not give a satisfactory overview of authors working on these topics.

So possibly more worthwhile from a theoretical perspective as opposed to the practical approach Burdick et. al. take, is Patrik Svenssons essay on The Landscape of Digital Humanities. This essay was published in 2010, prior to the Digital_Humanities volume, which might explain Svenssons need to elaborate on the new ways in which digital humanities are perceived. Svensson argues that digital humanities are a field in a loose sense, and inclusive in a sense that the field covers different activities in the intersection between humanities and digital technologies.

In an attempt to map out the sectors of the field, Svensson mentions Tara McPherson's (2009) differentiation between computing humanities (which mainly use digital tools, infrastructure and archives), blogging humanities (focussing on networked media and peer-to-peer reviews and learning) and multimodal humanities (which use scholarly tools, databases and networked writing all combined in visual and aural media). Davidson (2008) offers another aspect of differentiation, distinguishing between humanities 1.0 and 2.0 in accordance to the development of the internet itself as the central medium of digitalization. Humanities 2.0 is distinguished from monumental, first-generation, data-based projects not just by its interactivity but also by openness about participation grounded in a different set of theoretical premises, which decenter knowledge and authority"  (Davidson 2008, 711–12). What can be derived from both of these approaches is a shift towards interactivity, non-arboric knowledge growth and multimedial presentation.

This very vague categorization provides the problem of different research projects or institutions dealing with different aspects of digital humanities might have to compete for funds, as they are perceived to cover one field while actually working on very diverse topics. Svensson (2009a) argues that humanities computing provides the core, while digital humanities includes the various disciplines. This binary shows up the problems of telling the history of humanities computing as digital humanities. So the connection between the disciplines and the core is somewhat difficult because of the epistemic investment humanities computing has in technology as a tool and method, which defines it as a field. Digital humanities are not always institutionalized, and institutionalized fields like games studies etc. do not necessarily see themselves as part of digital humanities. This results from traditional ways of seeing academics, which has difficulties grasping the emergence of alternative ways of the digital. Digital humanities however, become a place for change and action, as Svensson argues with Davidson (2009). So digital humanities can be seen as 1. a developing field which lets humanities embrace the digital and create new tools to analyze it in an emergent nature or 2. a set of tools which implement technologies to make new knowledge from cultural inheritance (which is far more static, also according to Svensson).

However, research areas such as cyberculture studies and critical digital studies (digital culture and the cultural construction of information technology as a study object) are excluded from digital humanities studies, which often centralize around libraries, as they evolve around alternative ways of teaching and spreading knowledge.

Digital humanities according to Svensson has five fruitful parameters of engagement, which can be analyzed: information technology as a tool, as a study object, as an expressive medium, as an experimental laboratory and an activist venue. So there are general ways of categorizing the field, although, as this article suggests, it could be difficult to include all research aspects by mapping the field too closely.

 continue reading on the topic: values in digital humanities


Burdick et. Al 2012 Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, Jeffrey Schnapp “Digital_Humanities”. MIT Press 2010. accessed 1 June 2013.

Davidson 2008 Davidson, Cathy N. "Humanities 2.0: Promise, Perils, Predictions". Publications of the Modern Language Association of America (PMLA) 123:3 (2008), 707-717.

Davidson 2009 Davidson, Cathy N. "Innovation AND Tradition". HASTAC Discussion Forum on the Future of the Digital Humanities, 03 February 2009. Accessed 1 June 2013.

McPherson 2008 McPherson, Tara. "Dynamic Vernaculars: Emerent Digital Forms in Contemporary Scholarship". Lecture presented to HUMLab Seminar, Umeå University, 4 March 2008.

Svensson 2009 Svensson, Patrik. "Humanities computing as digital humanities". Digital Humanities Quarterly, 3:3 (2009).

Svensson 2010 Svensson, Patrik. “The Landscape of Digital Humanities”. Digital Humanities Quarterly,4:1