Quantitative, Qualitative, Digital. Research Methods and DH

This summer, there was an extensive discussion on the Humanist mailing list about the form and nature of research methods in digital humanities. This matters, as it speaks in a fundamental way to a question whose very asking defines Digital Humanities as a discipline: when does the development and use of a tool become a method, or a methodology? The thoughts and responses this thread provoked is testament to the importance of this question.  While this post does not aim to offer a complete digest of this thread, I wanted to highlight a couple of key points that emerged from it. A key theme was in one exchange, which concerned the point in any research activity which employs digital tools at which human interpretation enters. Should this be the creation of tools, the design of those tools, the adding of metadata, the design of metadata, and so on. If one is creating a set of metadata records relating to a painting with reference to “Charles I” (ran an example given by Dominic Oldman), the computer would not “understand” the meaning of any information provided by the user, and any subsequent online aggregation would be similarly knowledge-agnostic.

In other words, where should human knowledge in the Digital Humanities lie? In the tool, or in the data, or both?

Whatever the answer, the key aspect is the point at which a convention in the use of a particular tool becomes a method. In a posting to the thread on 25th July, Willard McCarty stated:

The divergence is over the tendency of ‘method’ to become something fixed. (Consider, for example, “I have a method for doing that.” Contrast “What if I try doing this?”).

“Fixedness” is essential, and it implies some form of critically-grounded consensus among those using the method in question. This is perhaps easier to see in the social sciences that it is in the [Digital] humanities. For example, how would a classicist, or an historian, or a literature scholar approaching manuscripts through the method of close reading present and describe that method in the appropriate section of the paper? How would this differ from, say the equivalent section in a paper by a social scientist using grounded theory to approach a set of interviews? While there may be no differentiation in the rigour or quality of the research, but one suspects the latter would have a far greater consensus – and body of methodological literature – to draw upon to describe grounded theory, than the former would to describe close reading.

Many discussions on this subject remain content-focused still. What content means in itself has assumed a broader aspect. Whereas “content” in the DH may once have meant digitized texts, images and manuscripts, surely now it also includes web content such as tweets, transient social media, and blog posts such as this one. It is essential to continue to address the DH research life-cycle, as based on content, but I still but we need to tackle explicitly methodology (emphasis deliberate), in both its definition and epistemology, and defined by the presence of fixity, as noted by McCarty.” Methodological pluralism”, the key theme of the thread on Humanist this summer, is great, but for there to be pluralism, there must first be singularity. As noted, the social sciences have this in a very grounded way. I have always argued that the very terms “quantitative” and “qualitative” are understood, shared, written about and, ultimately, used in a much more systematic way in the social sciences than in the (digital) humanities, where they are often taken to express a simple distinction between “something than can be computed versus something that cannot”.

I am not saying this is not a useful distinction, but surely the Humanist thread shows that the DH should at least deepen the distinction to mean “something which can be understood by a computer versus something that cannot”.

I would like to pose three further questions on the topic:

1) how are “technological approaches” defined in DH – e.g. the use of a tool, the use of a suite of tools, the composite use of a generic set of digital applications?

2) what does a “technological approach” employing one or more tools enable us to do?

3) how is what we do with technology a) replicable and b) documentable?

Author: Stuart Dunn

I do various things, but mainly I am Professor of Spatial Humanities at King's College London's . My interests include things computational, cartographic and archaeological.

2 thoughts on “Quantitative, Qualitative, Digital. Research Methods and DH”

  1. This debate around methodology in the DH with regard to what is ‘qualitative’ and what is ‘quantitative’ intrigues me a lot, and I would offer a brief consideration in the light of my experience as corpus linguist. I have recently applied a complex of RegEx queries to a syntax-based annotated Latin corpus so to extract data for my research. This work has suggested me that a hard distinction between ‘qualitative’ and ‘quantitative’ tends to blur, and not only because even a single word in a corpus can make a huge difference in terms of significance, but also because before writing a query I have to establish what type of data I need to extract, and then, on the quantitative data I have extracted, I have to perform a new evaluation of the data itself (to determine, for example, the type of situation or event expressed by a verb). The ‘qualitative’ aspect, thus, if for ‘qualitative’ we mean something which “cannot be computed”, overwhelms the mere ‘quantitative’ factor to such an extent that the role of the human interpreter, far from being diminished or replaced by the machine, is enhanced.

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