The Eventual Sunset of Methodology?

The minor field I’m completing this summer with six of my peers is titled “Digital Humanities: Theory and Practice,” and our first week’s readings topic focuses on the history of the field and the various definitions of both digital history and digital humanities. These readings discuss many themes and issues within digital humanities, and this week the authors of the articles and blog posts identified many broadly configured needs, including the need to transform the DH community both internally and externally—women and people of color should be better represented within the field, and DH needs to reach a broader audience; the need to re-focus the field; the need to develop better DH tools; and the need to focus on what the tools reveal about the data. Another theme inherent within these readings is that digital technology allows scholars, and an even broader audience of non-scholars, to work in new ways.

Out of this week’s collection of readings, the one that I found most interesting was Cameron Blevins’s 2015 blog post “The Perpetual Sunrise of Methodology.” Blevins argues that it is time to shift the focus of DH away from methodology to the findings and argument. We are now at a point that the significance of the findings should take precedence over the utilization of tools used to reach that argument. I agree wholeheartedly with Blevins, as he raises issues that I’ve struggled with since August, when I first encountered digital humanities. I’ve always felt that there was something missing whenever these tools were under discussion, whether it was in class or in an informal meeting of my peers and fellow graduate students at the Center. Without a doubt it is important to know how to use these tools and to be able to elucidate how digital methodologies were used to interpret and analyze the data in question. But it is also equally important to be able to discuss what these tools are showing us about that data—what arguments can be made from the resulting information? What are the larger claims? What does this tell us the topic at hand? Why is this significant? How do the findings actually further our understanding of history? In Blevins’s case, four years after he blogged about topic modeling and Martha Ballard, he published an article in the Journal of American History challenging the notion that the nineteenth century was a time of integration and incorporation. He used digital methods to examine a newspaper printed in Houston, Texas in the 1890s, and found that regional matters heavily outweighed national matters. Despite attempting to reach a different audience than he had with his Martha Ballard blog post, his colleagues once again were focused more on the methods than the results.

When Micki Kaufman came to the Center in March to present on her dissertation, “‘Everything on Paper Will Be Used Against Me’: Quantifying Kissinger,” she spent a great deal of time discussing her digital methodology. This discussion was both enlightening and insightful, and I learned so much in a short period of time. In fact, I wouldn’t mind if she could come to the Center once a week to give us updates on her progress. In the Q&A afterwards, Sean Takats, director of Research at the Center, told her that as she had employed such a wide variety of digital methodologies and analyzed such a large corpus of information, the next step is to take her findings and make a larger claim about what she had found. I think that, as a field, we need to take Sean’s suggestion and start to make those arguments. Digital methodologies are not going to advance our study of history; digital methodologies are already advancing the study of history.

This leaves two questions:
1) Why is the DH community so focused on methodology rather than significance?
2) How can we change the focus away from methodology and towards significance?
One of my theories is that there are still many scholars who are uncomfortable using digital methodologies, and so they discuss these methodologies in order to comprehend them better so they can apply them to their own research. Shifts within the field and in the historiography always take time to become fully integrated and embraced by all scholars, so this is not a particularly intuitive observation. At the same time, though, it is also important to ask why these tools are useful for things other than analyzing data. How can we use text mining to prove larger arguments? How can we use visualizations to craft claims? I think a good starting point in shifting the focus away from methodology and towards significance is to publish more articles similar to Blevins’s in the Journal of American History. He uses digital methodologies but also makes an important and significant argument. I’ve read a lot in this past year about using such tools, but not enough about the significance of the findings. That might be a good place to begin.

One Comment

  1. Jordan F. Bratt

    Glad you got the comments working again..

    Great blog post, Alyssa! One of the first things I was taught about Digital History is that it brings methodology back into the discussion of history. Often with other various schools of thought and ideologies, methodology is often discussed cursory or in passing, if it is addressed at all. Understanding methodology is key to any historical argument. It is the framework, means, and overall tenor of the historical argument. Yet, as you have articulated well, Digital History has “swung back the other direction” maybe too far. What do you think, as graduate students, we can do in our studies and progression through our degree to remedy or rectify the absence of significance?

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