Doing DH as/or Digital Scholarship: An Ethnography of Scholarship, Properly Done

Review of Amongst Digital Humanists: An Ethnographic Study of Digital Knowledge Production by Antonijević, Smiljana, Published by Springer, 2016.

Amongst Digital Humanists: An Ethnographic Study of Digital Knowledge Production (2015) by Smiljana Antonijević is among the first long-form ethnographic studies of theory and practice in Digital Humanities (DH) scholarship. This study seems in direct response to Christine Borgman’s 2009 call for a “social studies of digital humanities.” Borgman writes:

Why is no one following digital humanities scholars around to understand their practices, in the way that scientists have been studied for the last several decades? This body of research has informed the design of scholarly infrastructure for the sciences, and is a central component of cyberinfrastructure and eScience initiatives . . . The humanities community should invite more social scientists as research partners and should make themselves available as objects of study. In doing so, the community can learn more about itself and apply the lessons to the design of tools, services, policies, and infrastructure (Borgman 2009, para 76).

Borgman’s comments and Antonijević’s book provoke a central question, however: Why must DH invite social scientists to study DH practices? What’s the downside? Why can’t we study and learn more about ourselves, ourselves?

DH has been considering the state of the field, its infrastructures, its mode of training and sustainability for decades (see Bowles 1965; Hockey 1986; and Selfe 1988). In considering and explaining the field, DH scholarship has long included methods that Borgman might describe as “following digital humanities scholars around” such as interviews, observations, and surveys (Svensson 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012; Hayles 2012; Nyhan 2012; Keener 2015 to name several). Unlike the social science studies about cyberinfrastructure that Borgman cites as examples, however, the DH scholarship to which I am pointing is not presented as social science even when it employs similar methods of data collection and analysis. In part, this difference is due to the particularities of how analyzing and writing about field research and data collection as qualitative empirical study is done in the social sciences (Becker 1996). When Borgman refers to particular scholarly practices such as “social studies” in the academy, she is pointing to long-standing and rigorous theory-driven practices that require theoretical development, expertise, long years of study, and a deep immersion in the community under examination.

As a social scientific study, Amongst Digital Humanists provides a rich collection of ethnographic data about the daily practices of scholars who produce knowledge by employing digital technologies in the humanities. In the first chapter, Antonijević describes the history of DH and the many debates that inspired her study as well as her methods and her particular epistemological perspective. The three central chapters focus on her findings, which include a snapshot of how scholars from different fields inside and out of the humanities engage with digital technologies as a form of “capacity building” that is constantly impacted by organizational factors that underlie digital scholarship such as training, professionalization, and sustainability. In its call for “universal humanism” and “pluralistic futures” (156), Antonijević’s final chapter uses these findings to argue for a delineation between DH and digital scholarship (DS) that she maintains would ensure a more diverse and inclusive discourse community around DH/DS in higher education rather than the “exclusionary, accusatory, or dismissing discourses and actions” that DH is currently perpetuating (156). Her pointed critiques of DH include (a) that participants are undertrained; (b) that their scholarship lacks clear evaluation criteria and venues; and (c) that their once well-funded projects are unsustainable, all of which makes for a prevailing DH culture against which, she asserts, we must “fight” (155).

Unfortunately, Antonijević’s conclusions about DH seem to reflect how she framed her study and the behaviors and interactions of the homogenous communities she chose to follow rather than reflect a more comparative engagement with epistemes and disciplines across DH as she claims to pursue at the book’s onset. Ethnographers typically believe that if “properly done,” ethnographic methods are the best methods for better understanding “real-world social processes” (Forsythe 1999, 129), but to do ethnography “properly,” the ethnographer must use data-gathering methods that are framed by a particular philosophical stance and conceptual structure. Influenced by the writings of Strathern (2005) and Bourdieu (1988), who stress comparative approaches and understand the world as constructed and situated, Antonijević asserts that her methods promote a constructed and situated appraisal of DH (34), but Antonijević’s laudable call for pluralism and her desire to “challenge assumptions of epistemic cultural essentialism” (31) in DH are undercut by the study’s scope, which overlooks and underplays alternative DH communities, histories, and methods. Instead of a comparative approach, Antonijević props up a particularly narrow version of DH by willfully ignoring this wider range of DH work, meanwhile creating a convenient, straw-man version of DH to attack.

In particular, who and what she chooses to study helps prop up this limited view of DH. While rich in breadth of experience, her examples are narrowly situated both geographically – primarily Western European universities (with one US site) – and in terms of resources as each of these sites include robust and well-funded research programs.  In her attempt to give “an empirical basis for inquiry into the changing landscape of the humanities” (34), Antonijević describes with explicit detail her visits between 2010 and 2013 to 23 educational, research, and funding institutions in the US and Europe. She describes surveys, interviews, and observations with 258 participants including researchers, faculty, students, university administrators, librarians, software developers, policy makers, and funders. These projects include Alfalab: eHumanities Tools and Resources (Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences or KNAW); Digitizing Words of Power (KNAW and the University of Amsterdam); Humanities Information Practices (KNAW, Oxford Internet Institute, and University College London); and Digital Scholarly Workflow (Penn State University). In the conditions she describes, DH does look like a cog in a vacuous political engine run by a terrible oligarchy of newly clothed emperors (Kirschenbaum 2014).

In Antonijević’s version of DH, alternate kinds of DH work are largely ignored. Examples of DH that could thwart some of her conclusions about DH include (but are not limited to) programs where greater importance is placed on teaching rather than research initiatives, such as Bard College’s Experimental Humanities Concentration and Initiative, which is situated within a small liberal arts college focused primarily on the arts, and the digital humanities community at Salem State University, which seeks “to create DH opportunities for underserved student populations and a model for building DH at regional comprehensive universities” (Risam, Snow, and Edwards 2017). Other examples include many of the international groups such as the Centre of Educational Technology at the University of Cape Town, where researchers think critically about educational technologies, or transnational groups such as RedHd (Red de Humanidades Digitales) in Mexico, which seeks to think about DH from a global perspective that requires DH to consider how access to computing power and technology on a small scale must be accommodated in our understanding of DH work across a large number of less wealthy global communities (Galina 2013).

In contrast to the narrow range of sites that Antonijević has chosen to study, the definition of DH work she uses to frame her study covers too broad a swath. In Antonijević’s study, the digital scholarship she describes has, at its core, a fundamental separation between digital tools and the research workflow. In her attempt to capture how digital technologies are being used in humanities research, for example, Antonijević begins her interviews asking respondents what digital tools they use in each of eleven research “phases” that she shows them on a visual prompt. These phases include research activities: collect, find, analyze, write, communicate, organize, annotate, cite, reflect, archive, and share. She writes about this initial tactic:

The use of the visual prompt enabled me thus to develop a more detailed overview of the variety of digital tools scholars use in their research practices, and to understand the influence these tools have on segments of scholarly practice that become routinized and thus invisible to analytical activity. (39)

Antonijević is including and describing scholars who use digital tools while they conduct research but she is interviewing scholars who do not consider the digital tools analytically as part of their research, reflecting a definition of the DH scholar that is in direct opposition to a prevailing notion in DH about what counts as good DH scholarship.

In contrast, many have shown that digital humanities is a field in which a critical awareness of how digital information technologies influence perspectives in and on research in the humanities is essential to rigorous DH scholarship. DH scholarship typically makes visible how codes and platforms (Chun 2013; Manovich 2013), media archaeology (Kirschenbaum 2007; Parikka 2012), digital scholarly communications (Fitzpatrick 2007), publishing (McPherson 2014), gaming (Flanagan 2009; Jagoda 2013), geospatial analysis (Elliott & Gillies 2009), interactive, multimedia design (Balsamo 2011), and machine learning (Heuser and Le-Khac 2012; Piper 2017), statistical analysis (Burrows 2004; Ramsay 2011), and visualization (Drucker 2011; D’Ignazio and Klein 2016) influence scholarship in the humanities. It is quite true that the scholars Antonijević interviewed and observed use digital tools, but it is not accurate or productive to say that the broad swath of participants in her study accurately portrays the “digital humanists” that the title Amongst Digital Humanists promises to better understand.

To be fair, Amongst Digital Humanists demonstrates well that research practices employing digital technologies in the humanities can be particularly difficult to study with ethnographic methods. Scholarly practices in the humanities can often occur privately, independently, idiosyncratically, and outside of the more public and regimented lab spaces that are traditionally studied in Science and Technology Studies (STS) (see, for example, Knorr-Cetina and Mulkay 1983; Knorr-Cetina 1999; Latour 1988; Latour and Woolgar 1986). In particular, Antonijević, Beaulieu (2004; 2010), and Borgman (2009) mention the difficulty of “rendering ‘public’ philosophical, historical, or literary knowledge” (Beaulieu 2004, 456) that is produced through research practices in the humanities. Doing social science studies—like doing DH—requires an epistemological framework and a community of practice and the kinds of ethnographic methods that Antonijević employs in her study are part of a century-old tradition that is changing and becoming increasingly more difficult as the methods of work that ethnographers study changes in the digital age (Forsythe 1999). Scholars in STS have shown that digital technologies can make certain kinds of work and infrastructures unobservable even when (as in Star 1999) there are well-meaning subjects who seek to describe their work for the ethnographer. Yet, given these difficulties, it is the study’s narrowness (in terms of projects) and breadth (in terms of defining DH) that ultimately weakens the foundation of her concluding arguments about DH.

Finally, with her limited sample of DH projects and communities and a narrow viewpoint of DH history, Antonijević misses the main point of and the opportunities present in the vast range of DH scholarship that seeks to expose and critique the bindings between knowledge production and intellectual communities or epistemes, technologies, and cultures. Whether one speaks of DH or DS, the politics of institutions that support digital technologies can never be untethered from how knowledge production happens in higher education. In response to a recent piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books (Allington, Brouillette, and Golumbia 2016) that positions DH as the site for a neoliberalist take-over of the humanities in higher education, for example, Alan Liu (amid a more general outcry by many scholars both in DH and without) revisits his own misunderstood critiques of DH in order to consider what he calls the “critical potential of DH” (Liu 2016b). Liu shakes an admonitory finger at the LARB authors for not seeing “that digital humanists have real critical goals too” (2016c). He then points to his newest book project where he lays out these goals:

I call for digital humanities research and development informed by, and able to influence, the way scholarship, teaching, administration, support services, labor practices, and even development and investment strategies in higher education intersect with society, where a significant channel of the intersection between the academy and other social sectors, at once symbolic and instrumental, consists in shared but contested information-technology infrastructures. (Liu 2016a).

Like the LARB authors, Antonijević sets up the contours of her study to portray DH as the site of what ails the humanities in higher education in general. Unlike Liu, Antonijević observes but does not see DH; as such, she chooses not to see its potential.

A social studies of the Digital Humanities could help us acknowledge truly rigorous DH scholarship as well as steer us away from scholarship poorly done, but straw man theories about the enemies among us distract us from focusing on the fundamental concerns around issues of academic rigor, professionalization, funding, and public engagement at the heart of the humanities in higher education today. Antonijević’s claim to understand the world as constructed and situated is in direct contrast to her assertion on the book’s last page that diversity and inclusivity in higher education means understanding that “regardless the size of any current disciplinary ‘tent,’ digital knowledge production is intellectually, technically, and culturally unbounded” (156). Indeed, the interviews and observations collected in Amongst Digital Humanists show that digital knowledge production in digital humanities is necessarily culturally bounded. Antonijević’s DH is a convenient, tactical, and situated version of DH that serves the book’s ultimate ends: to tell us about uncritical scholarship (scholarship done improperly). As a result, Amongst Digital Humanists provides a detailed snapshot of how different kinds of scholars in the humanities use digital technologies in well-resourced research communities in Europe and the United States on individual, disciplinary, and organizational levels, but Antonijević’s shortsighted version of DH shortchanges the impact such a rich and complex view of digital scholarly work in the context of humanities knowledge production could have made on better understanding the real-world, social processes of critical digital humanities.



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About the Author

Tanya E. Clement is an Associate Professor in the School of Information at the University of Texas at Austin. She has a PhD in English Literature and Language and an MFA in fiction. Her primary area of research centers on scholarly information infrastructure as it impacts academic research, research libraries, and the creation of research tools and resources in the digital humanities. She has published widely in DH. Some of her digital projects include High Performance Sound Technologies for Access and Scholarship (HiPSTAS), In Transition: Selected Poems by the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven and BaronessElsa: An Autobiographical Manifesto.

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