How to define “Digital Humanities” – Is it possible?

Over my relatively brief time peering into the matter of Digital Humanities (DH), one thing has been made abundantly clear: there is no concrete conclusion on how to define Digital Humanities.

From a field of study to an array of methods, to computational practices to an interdisciplinary movement within the academy, determining what DH is as a whole is complex. However, there does seem to be consensus on how to “do” DH and how the field is characterized. Through this, I believe there are patterns that can be identified to form an overall theme that provides at least a working definition of what exactly Digital Humanities is.

To cut to the point: I think Digital Humanities can be understood best as a discipline in practice, a realm in where digital technologies intersect with the work of humanities disciplines that seeks to re-imagine conventional methods of traditional scholarship and create new interpretations and presentations of knowledge. DH is characterized by collaborative methodologies and an interdisciplinary scope, but is accessible to those studying other fields by virtue of the tools not being exclusive to Digital Humanists. As rhetorically asked by Melissa Terras, “what are the ‘Digital Humanities’ if not a broad spectrum of academic approaches, loosely bound together with a shared interest in technology and humanistic research, in all its guises?”¹

Since the 1990s, DH has gone through an array of interpretations that seem to correspond with the developing technological trends in the academy. Charles Henry seems to demonstrate this tread in his explanation of the use of computers for textual analysis in 1993. “Finding the computer ‘an ideal semiotic machine,’ a more productive methodology would be to use computers to analyze large textual databases, approaching the texts as evidence of development and transformation of meaning systems.”² With an early focus on the use of computational tools to enhance in-classroom experiences and retain focus on primary sources, DH has changed this focus to look more at the creative process that happens when using the technology at hand to not only enhance non-digital scholarship, but highlight the value of qualitative methods to inspire new ways of answering the kinds of questions Humanists ask. Because of this, practicing DH is no longer a matter of having a technical background to further your traditional “analog,” but an interactive relationship with digital sphere and the tools of that realm. This natural interaction depicts the confluence of both methods and character, hence why it would be inaccurate to approach DH from a purely technical perspective. The field has been created by those who are engaging with it and this imbues it with its distinctive personality. As such, Chris Milando describes DH in a way that the two seem inseparable: “For me, the easiest way to define DH is not (necessarily) a discipline in-and-of-itself, but a practice: the use of digital tools, software and techniques to enhance scholarship in the humanities … However, what ultimately makes DH unique from the traditional humanities, is its insistence on interdisciplinary collaboration, unique methods of scholarship, and mediums of study that are “born-digital.”³

In this regard, DH does operate more as a set of practices that are, to me, “in motion,” for any scholar (or student or civilian–anyone, really) can pick up these tools and move it into another discipline. This is what makes the realm of DH so flexible: that by its very name (humaniTIES), it is interdisciplinary. Thus, we need a definition that is not so rigid in that it implies we are only Digital Humanists. Rather, we need a definition that acknowledges the commonality of our work as Humanists who work within the digital space and utilize digital tools.

Ultimately, it will be up to those who identify as Digital Humanists to decide what DH is and who is a Humanist in this area. As of now, it seems clear that we can only hope to describe, not what it is, but how we do it.

1. Terras, Melissa. “Peering Inside the Big Tent: Digital Humanities and the Crisis of Inclusion.” Melissa Terras (blog), July 26, 2011.

2. Henry, Charles. “The surface of language and humanities computing.” Computers and the Humanities 27, no. 5-6 (1993): 315-322.

3. Chris Milando, “How do you define DH?” Carleton University, Day of DH 2014.

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