The topic of this conference (going on now!) at Utrecht University raises an issue similar to the one raised in my article at LSE’s Impact Blog: DH’ists have been brilliant at mining data but not always so brilliant at pooling data to address the traditional questions and theories that interest humanists. Here’s the conference description (it focuses specifically on DH and history):
Across Europe, there has been much focus on digitizing historical collections and on developing digital tools to take advantage of those collections. What has been lacking, however, is a discussion of how the research results provided by such tools should be used as a part of historical research projects. Although many developers have solicited input from researchers, discussion between historians has been thus far limited.
The workshop seeks to explore how results of digital research should be used in historical research and to address questions about the validity of digitally mined evidence and its interpretation.
And here’s what I said in my Impact Blog article, using as an example my own personal hero’s research in literary geography:
[Digital humanists] certainly re-purpose and evoke one another’s methods, but to date, I have not seen many papers citing, for example, Moretti’s actual maps to generate an argument not about methods but about what the maps might mean. Just because Moretti generated these geographical data does not mean he has sole ownership over their implications or their usefulness in other contexts.
I realize now that the problem is still one of method—or, more precisely, of method incompatibility. And the conference statement above gets to the heart of it.
Mining results with quantitative techniques is ultimately just data gathering; the next and more important step is to build theories and answer questions with that data. The problem is, in the humanities, that moving from data gathering to theory building forces the researcher to move between two seemingly incommensurable ways of working. Quantitative data mining is based on strict structuralist principles, requiring categorization and sometimes inflexible ontologies; humanistic theories about history or language, on the other hand, are almost always post-structuralist in their orientation. Even if we’re not talking Foucault or Derrida, the tendency in the humanities is to build theories that reject empirical readings of the world that rely on strict categorization. The 21st century humanistic move par excellence is to uncover the influence of “socially constructed” categories on one’s worldview (or one’s experimental results).
On Twitter, Melvin Wevers brings up the possibility of a “post-structuralist corpus linguistics.” To which James Baker and I replied that that might be a contradiction in terms. To my knowledge, there is no corpus project in existence that could be said to enact post-structuralist principles in any meaningful way. Such a project would require a complete overhaul of corpus technology from the ground up.
So where does that leave the digital humanities when it comes to the sorts of questions that got most of us interested in the humanities in the first place? Is DH condemned forever to gather interesting data without ever building (or challenging) theories from that data? Is it too much of an unnatural vivisection to insert structural, quantitative methods into a post-structuralist humanities?
James Baker throws an historical light on the question. When I said that post-structuralism and corpus linguistics are fundamentally incommensurable, he replied with the following point:
— James Baker (@j_w_baker) September 14, 2015
And he suggested that in his own work, he tries to follow this historical development:
— James Baker (@j_w_baker) September 14, 2015
Structuralism/post-structuralism exists (or should exist) in dialectical tension. The latter is a real historical response to the former. It makes sense, then, to enact this tension in DH research. Start out as a positivist, end as a critical theorist, then go back around in a recursive process. This is probably what anyone working with DH methods probably does already. I think Baker’s point is that my “problem” posed above (structuralist methods in a post-structuralist humanities) isn’t so much a problem as a tension we need to be comfortable living with.
Not all humanistic questions or theories can be meaningfully tackled with structuralist methods, but some can. Perhaps a first step toward enacting the structuralist/post-structuralist dialectical tension in research is to discuss principles regarding which topics are or are not “fair game” for DH methods. Another step is going to be for skeptical peer reviewers not to balk at structuralist methods by subtly trying to remove them with calls for more “nuance.” Searching out the nuances of an argument—refining it—is the job of multiple researchers across years of coordinated effort. Knee-jerk post-structuralist critiques (or requests for an author to put them in her article) are unhelpful when a researcher has consciously chosen to utilize structuralist methods.