Digital Humanities – What Is It and Why Is It One of the Newest Revolutions in the Humanities?
The scientific landscape is changing before our eyes. Different sciences are becoming more and more intertwined with one another, and this sometimes creates quite unexpected combinations, such as the digital humanities. This field is developing rapidly, with conferences and summer schools now being held on the subject. In addition, HSE recently devoted an entire week to the Digital Humanities. But what is this field and why is it so important?
To help answer these questions, we have asked Daniil Skorinkin, a postgraduate student in the School of Linguistics, and Anastasiya Bonch-Osmolovskaya, an associate professor in the Faculty of Humanities.
Judging by the name, I would say this is some sort of hybrid between the humanities and the technical sciences. Is that correct?
It is, but not in the sense that humanities specialists suddenly decided to study physics. The key word here is still ‘humanities,’ that is, the classical humanities – philology, history, philosophy, and the cultural studies. But these fields are being studied in a different way, with attention now being paid to the fact that the world is becoming digital.
Before, researchers had at hand dozens, hundreds, and maybe even thousands of books, but today the number closer to the millions. How do you study them if even a thousand years wouldn’t be enough to read them all? Tens of thousands of books used to collect dust in archives and were only accessible to a select few, but now these books are being digitised and equipped with ‘smart mark-up’ and search tools. How can the books be analysed and conclusions reached from this wealth of data? Cartography also used to be something only a select few were engaged in, but now anyone can put their coordinates on an interactive globe. How can Google Maps be used to learn more about how trade worked in the ancient world, how the plague spread in medieval Europe, or how air transport functioned in the post-war USSR? All of these questions pushed humanities researchers to master skills and knowledge that are completely uncharacteristic for them – data analysis, data science, text mining, network theory, and geoinformatics, for example. This is what gave rise to the digital humanities.
We are still not able to provide an exhaustive definition of the digital humanities, however. The site whatisdigitalhumanities.com has 817 different variants – have fun reading through all of them. Our favourite definition is this: ‘DH is taking tools built by warmongers, oil companies, spy agencies & investment bankers and using them to study literature, philosophy, culture and the classics.’
Really though, formal research in the humanities had a rich history in the 20th century – versification, historical databases, and stylometry to name a few. It has long been quite common for linguists to work with statistical data and text corpora. The increased interest in precise methods in the humanities is actually connected to the emergence of new possibilities – the availability of electronic texts, the development of methods for these texts’ automatic analysis, new capacities for storage and processing, and new tools for working with data.
The digital humanities are creating interactive maps of correspondence between French enlighteners, building social networks using the letters and journals of the great poets, constructing 3D models of Ancient Rome, and automatically turning Hollywood screenplays into images.
A social network of poets?
Network analysis (mostly social networks) is a developed scientific field with a rich history and fairly complex mathematics at its core. When looking at a research subject, you can learn a lot of new and unobvious things about it because a network (including your own network of contacts on Facebook, for example) is a strict mathematical abstraction for which heaps of various formal metrics, community identification algorithms, significance parameters for each specific unit, etc. have been created. This is all applicable to fields ranging from physics to sociology, and literature scholars are no exception. But of course, the digital humanities field has a ‘we did it for fun’ element to it as well, especially when you look at visual networks.
So then every linguist or historian now also has to be a programmer?
Not necessarily, though this is definitely becoming more common. For example, School of Linguistics Associate Professor Boris Orekhov defended his dissertation on the lyrics of Fyodor Tyutchev, and he is now teaching Python programming, as well as literary analysis on Shakespeare. But you can be a classical philologist or historian and participate in the digital humanities.
Like with any interdisciplinary field of research, the digital humanities are conducive to team and project work. There are few independent researchers, though there are a lot of smaller research groups and research projects that divvy the work up. The HSE Centre for Digital Humanities, for example, has computer scientists, linguists, text mining experts, philologists, historians, and philosophers. The same can be said for the Digital Literary Studies Research Group.
Have there been any new discoveries yet in this field?
There have been quite a lot. For example, the digital humanities, along with statistics, helped uncover that J.K. Rowling had released a book under a pseudonym. It turns out that the frequency with which words are used in a literary text is a surprisingly effective way of identifying the author. A writer can write under a different name, but it is not that easy to change your style and trick a computer.
And research on the social networks of different characters in a work showed that network density is much higher in a comedy than in a tragedy. This is in line with the assumptions of literary scholars that a comedy requires more dialogue than a tragedy (killing, suffering, and dying can be done silently, while laughing and making someone laugh usually cannot).
How can you become a ‘digital humanities expert?’
In a ton of different ways, and this is something that our colleague Frank Fischer recently discussed in an interview. There are a lot of different digital humanities experts – from programmers, philologists, linguistics, and philosophers to mathematicians, historians, teachers, and journalists. The main thing is that at a certain point, they all came to understand the potential of computer-based methods in the humanities. Frank Fischer himself was unable to choose between computer science and literature, and as a result studied both at university. Only afterwards did he realise that he was actually a digital humanities specialist.
I cannot stand mathematics and programming – what should I do?
It’s always useful to know maths, but you by no means need mathematics everywhere in the digital humanities. As for programming, it is of course preferred that you have a certain skill level, but what’s great about living in the 21st century is that a lot has already been done for you, and you only have to push a few buttons. To conduct a stylometric analysis or to determine who wrote a book, for example, a wonderful tool has been created called Stylo. This is a software package in the language of R, but thanks to its graphical interface, non-programmers can use the programme as well. But we mustn’t also forget about standard analysis and data processing tools that everyone knows about. Before Stylo, the same methods for determining authorship were used successfully in Excel.
Okay, but do they teach you this at HSE?
They do. The beginning of the Computational Linguistics Master’s Programme includes a digital humanities course. In addition, the Faculty of the Humanities is offering a Contemporary Methods in the Humanities minor starting this year. Lastly, a group of undergraduates (from various schools and faculties, including the Faculty of Mathematics) currently work in the Digital Literary Studies Research Group.
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