DH 804 – Changing Theories of History

Is digital history fundamentally different from history as we know it? Dougherty suggests “By definition, digital history utilizes different tools, differently, than most historians are used to. It has its own vocabulary and requires different skills sets (emphasizing, for example, curation as opposed to detective work)” (Dougherty, Jack, ed. “Writing History in the Digital Age.” Writing History in the Digital Age, May 22, 2011.) So what are these tools, vocabularies, and skills? And how have historians begun to embrace them?

The study, “Supporting the Changing Research Practices of Historians,” which included interviews with historians, suggests that underlying research methods remain the same, despite new tools and technologies. The one area that respondents were comfortable incorporating into their research practices was Searching.  Tools that aided in analysis or information organization were not. It would seem that there is a gap between the historian and the digital. Though historians (myself included, of course) embrace searching as a change to our day-to-day research practices, Putnam complicates it’s uncritical usage.

Putnam’s article offers an interesting critique of our use of text searches. She highlights the way in which searching releasing text from it’s anchors, encourages scholars to consider the effects of searching more broadly, taking into account the macro and the micro, geographic scope and the scale of observation.  Together, Rutner, Schonfeld and Putnam make me think more critically about research processes. Term-fishing and side-glancing have been added to our methodology, but perhaps we need to be more considerate about what those processes mean. Are there digital footprints akin to the footnotes we use in our texts, do we track our searches and maintain the links we followed? What doesn’t appear? What exists in the shadows, as Putnam writes? If we only search digitized projects- how do we privilege time periods? Languages?

In what ways does text-searching reinforce the linguistic turn? Jones’s work makes a strong argument that the field has placed a great deal of emphasis on words. ““from the utterance there is, supposedly, everything!” (Jones 536). In emphasizing words we decontextualize word from deed and person from society. “History must find ways to relate words to deeds to overcome this renewed bout of tunnel vision…history still needs to find ways of aggregating, not just particularizing, its subjects.” (522) Thinking about Jones’s arguments in the context of Putnam – we need to be considerate of these issues in as we tackle large-scale text mining projects- what isn’t in the word? What deeds, actions and groups are missing? How can words be more directly linked to deed using digital tools? (My initial reaction would be to think of digital mapping projects that have begun to do just that, but I’ll reserve comments on those projects until next week).

Outside of searching- what can historians use digital tools to do? As we’ve read in the weeks prior, the digital humanities offers several interesting and important avenues for collecting, organizing, analyzing, and interpreting the historical record. The digital turn offers new tools coupled with new questions. One of the most meaningful changes as we address the digital must be the subject of scale. As Price writes, “A theoretical possibility of digital scholarship — the indefinite expansibility — has become a lived reality in our case.” (Price 17)

Perhaps the shift in scale offered by the digital enables us to take a longer view of history, while still being responsive to the critiques and concerns raised in the field since the 1970s. Armitage and Guldi explore the ‘Return of the Long Duree”  in their article and make a convincing case for taking a “macroscope” lens to the evidence and evaluating larger time periods and long term trends.

An additional shift in historical research is the changing role of visualization. Staley and Moss examine the way in which the digital turn enables historians to harness visualization in meaningful ways. Staley defines visualization as “any graphic that organizes meaningful information in multidimensional spatial form.” (xi) This is, of course, juxtaposed with narrative, or prose, “a one-dimensional medium” (Staley xi).

The thrust of an argument for the visualization of history seems to be that creating visualizations enables the reader to access multiple levels of information simultaneously. I was most excited to read Moss and Staley, and while they offered a compelling discussion of visualization in historical study – the same question still floats around my mind- can history be done with visual tools or are we restricted to prose- can visualization make an argument? 

Staley places this question at the center of his text and while he examines exciting and interesting visual presentations of history, I’m not sure he’s answered it.  Moss, on the other hand, traces the rise of the visual and argues (like Hayles) that today’s learners are conditioned to appreciate the visual. (“In harmony with mass culture, the visualized emphasis of society becomes the currency by which to express thought.” Moss 3)  It is important to note that while visuals, like photographs and maps, may be seen as communicating information about an historical time period and also as evidence from within that time period- these are not the types of visualization that Moss and Staley describe.

Rather we should be thinking about those visualizations that are generated to describe evidence.  “Data-rich” visualizations, as Staley describes them, are complicated, work on multiple levels, while also clear and concise.

It is hard, given that we’ve so few concrete examples of what this type of project looks like that I’m not able to judge it’s effectiveness. We’ll see how the next grouping of readings on mapping will shape my thinking.



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