What does it mean a “fundamental research question” in DH?

Scholars reluctant to the DH scholarship often say: “OK… you build tools, you are able to deal with a huge amount of data, and what? What is the purpose? What do you get as new ideas, results?”. As far as I can see today, I guess that “fundamental research questions” are coming very often at a second time in the DH approach, by nature one can say, as I will argue.

With a lot of various scholars, I am also frustrated to see so often “fundamental research questions” apparently omitted. For example, I was this afternoon to a DH short paper here in Hamburg on “Experiments in Digital Philosophy” by Lou Bernard. The paper did not offer a word about a fundamental question in philosophy, but only questions regarding TEI encoding of texts and new ways to observe the academic production. Such a phenomenon occurs often in the DH papers. Why?

In May, an Harvard Magazine article clearly explained that “Scholars traditionally begin projects by figuring out what the good research questions are in a given field, and connecting with others interested in the same topics; they then gather and organize data; then analyze it; and finally, disseminate their findings through teaching or publication. Scholarship in a digital environment raises questions about every aspect of this process. For example, in gathering and organizing data”.

Digital Humanities are Humanities «made with the fingers», the «digitus» in Latin. Scholars have begun with a «Homo Faber» step in the DH scholarship, by litteraly «making» them. I am not arguing that it is good or not: it is the present situation. We are facing now a lot, a lot of diverse tools, particularly in the field of history, timelines and cartography representations, but we have got also a lot of diverse tools to analyze textuality. But – at a certain point – that’s logical.

Indeed, as the example developed by Debbie Rabina and Anthony Cocciolo this morning in their short paper shows, user research and user interaction can preceed and lead to theory and Humanities Content research (see the pattern below).

That’s the point: Humanities made with the fingers – Digital Humanities – open next to the research on the content and to reconsider then the produced tools again.


Claire Clivaz

Claire Clivaz is Head of Digital Enhanced Learning at the Swiss Institute of Bioinformatics (VITAL-IT, Lausanne, CH) and belongs to an interdisciplinary team that started the Digital Humanities in Switzerland since 2011. She is also a member of the LADHUL (www.unil.ch/ladhul). This blog assumes to developp opinions and discussions on all the events and problematics around the Digital Humanities, particularly in the French speaking aerea. Claire Clivaz est Head of Digital Enhanced Learning à l'Institut Suisse de Bioinformatique (Lausanne, CH) et appartient à une équipe interdisciplinaire qui a lancé les Humanités Digitales en Suisse depuis 2011. Elle est membre du Ladhul (www.unil.ch/ladhul). Ce blog se propose de présenter et développer des sujets de discussions sur les événements et problématiques touchant aux Humanités Digitales, notamment dans l’ère linguistique et culturelle francophone.

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5 réflexions au sujet de « What does it mean a “fundamental research question” in DH? »

  1. I am not convinced that the etymology of digital as « fingers » helps understand what digital humanities *is* or could be.

    Certainly it is the use of computational concepts, ideas, methods and tools that are crucially important. They also change the humanities from « fingers » to informating or processing.

    This clearly also transforms the humanities and what it is to be a humanities scholar.

    1. «Computer» designates a cerebral concept.
      With the iphone/ipad culture, we are acting again with our fingers in the digital culture, and it is a very important turning point.
      Robert Darnton pointed to that also in «The Case for Books», by evoking the German word Fingerspitzengefühl. Darton: “we find our way through the world by means of a sensory disposition that the Germans call Fingerspitzengefühl. If you were trained to guide a pen with your finger index, look at the way young people use their thumbs on mobile phones, and you will see how technology penetrates a new generation, body and soul” (p. XIII)

      1. I see, you are trying to draw attention to the haptic dimension of recent gesture interfaces?

        Then you are correct that touch is, perhaps, a useful means of exploring computation – although we should be aware of the conversational and non-touch gesture interface that are emerging too, eg Siri. With these the « finger » as a bodily experience is not prevalent. Although that is not to say that they are not material interfaces utilised through the body.

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