eResearch and Digital Humanities: a broader vision?

Digital Heat: Vast underground machines run by downtrodden humanists power ‘Metropolis.

I have been having many conversations with people of late around the boundaries  eResearch and Digital Humanities. I have received many divergent and exciting responses from researchers and professionals working in various ways with computing in the humanities. There does tend to be little agreement about certain aspects of the landscape; many researchers have discovered computing in the humanities from their particular perspective, and this perspective is often lacking generosity towards the richer and deeper veins of thought and helmsmanship provided by the long history of computing in humanities research and teaching (i.e. the digital humanities).

The eResearch community in Australia has done some fantastic work in terms of building and maintaining repositories and addressing related issues around data management and data re-use.  This is perhaps not unusual as, arguably, the Australian eResearch community emanated from the repository movement in the 1990s. However, the vision of eResearch, which principally relates to data management and reuse, is limited. It can be a relatively low-level understanding of computing in humanities research.

The raison d’etre of eResearch around data management and data re-use may be fundamental in some research contexts, but still, they are mainly scientific concerns. Although they may resonate with some aspects of humanities research, they are secondary to the higher cognitive functions required to address humanities problems. I think eResearch is essentially a set of Professional Development problems. Although professional academic development is essential to good research and teaching, there is no one-size-fits-all to professional development. Again, the scientific community’s needs are very different from those of humanities research.

Data management may be a component of some humanities research, and it may be of more importance to, say, one or two of the fifteen disciplines that traditionally constitute the humanities. Still, it is also a very limiting idea of computing in the humanities.   There are also some complex, urgent, and critical intellectual concerns about how computing works within societies thought and the digital humanities and humanities computing before it; we have been tackling these issues for close to half a century now (but still, ‘data’ does play a significant role in this, but I hope it isn’t the only role).

And I like how this body of knowledge developed within the digital humanities challenges and extends humanities researchers beyond the glass ceilings that eResearch has often inadvertently set for us. The humanities thrive on imagination and intellectual curiosity so that we can imagine something more colourful than a set of primarily scientific professional development issues focused upon good data management. This is a significant activity, but it is not the main game for much of the humanities, and good research requires a much larger vision.



Leave a Reply