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Diversity or Divergence: Plurality, Definitions, and the Digital Humanities
by Professor Stuart Dunn, King's College London

In his 2011 overview, The Computational Turn: Thinking About the Digital Humanities, David Berry described a so-called “third wave” of Digital Humanities [DH]. “Computational approaches” he said, “facilitate disciplinary hybridity that leads to a post-disciplinary university -- which can be deeply unsettling to traditional academic knowledge”. Over a decade on from this statement, a new breed of DH continues to cement its relevance to the modern world by addressing a range of issues relating to the humanities, society and culture through computational approaches. Inevitably therefore, the definition of DH is a vexed and complex question.

Often answers to this question turns on issues of exclusion and inclusion (what DH is and what is not), the kinds of skills and activities that one must have or do to be a “Digital Humanist” (does one, for example, have to be able to code?), and its relationships with the pre-digital disciplines from which it emerged. In many cases however, the term “Digital Humanities” is simply a useful term, with a strong sense of shared commonality, which scholars working with and on computing and the humanities can draw upon. As Melissa Terras et al put it in the introduction to their 2013 anthology, Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader: “[i]ndeed, it seems likely that the increasing currency of the term digital humanities will play an important role in helping to consolidate a sense of community” (Terras, Nyhan, and Vanhoutte 2013: 3). DH is therefore a term which both divides and unites. A key question for the field today is how a so-called “Big Tent” DH (“Big Tent” being a term which has enjoyed currency since the main annual conference of the Association of Digital Humanities Organizations adopted it as a strapline for its meeting at Stanford University in 2011) can serve as a platform for diverse scholarly exchange, while avoiding the perils of intellectual divergence, which undermine senses of collective academic endeavour and community.

One way to approach this is to ask what is DH for? If pressed to reflect on this, many will point to the shift of the nomenclature of the field from “Humanities Computing” to “Digital Humanities” around the early 2000s, which is often taken to mean a shift from collaborative resource building and the (often instrumentalist) augmentation of the thinking of more “established” humanities disciplines, especially those concerned with text and language, to a field with its own primary basis of theory and practice. More recent studies of the description of theoretical concepts using corpus analytics in the DH academic literature have suggested that there now exists a set of commonly understood theoretical paradigms across the field, which indicates that there is some form of theoretical body equivalent to DH, into which one can or cannot buy. Others still have proposed a “post-theoretical” strain of DH, in which instrumentation and analytics in a fully datafied world remove the need for theory all together. Why, in the Age of AI, do we need theory, when we can crunch numbers? Whether theory is needed or not, exactly what is being theorized remains the key to that elusive understanding of what DH is in 2023.

Few would argue, as in the past, that DH is exclusively, or even mainly, linked to the application of digital tools to textual research; the world of mark up, stylistics, corpus analytics and concordances (although such work continues to flourish in the field). Rather, the perils of divergence, and of neoliberalization, stem from many of the things which make DH in the twenty first century exciting. In the last twenty years, “the digital”, and its relationship to “the human” has changed beyond all recognition (many find the construction of “the digital as a singular noun to be problematic, and here it is used for the sake of argument alone). The mobile revolution has seen smartphone ownership increase from 66% to 99% of 16- to 24-years-olds, and by 19% to 82% of 55- to 64-year-olds between 2012 and 2022; the emergence of the major social media platforms (most notably Facebook in 2004 and Twitter in 2006); the revolution of information organization and retrieval bought about by Google since 1998; the development of the interactive web where anyone can be a publisher and have a platform, and of mass mobile mapping methods which have supplemented Big Geodata for the paper map and the physical signpost, are just examples of highly diverse yet interlinked, and often co-temporal, developments in technology in the wider world which have fundamentally changed “the digital” and how it relates to “the human”.

All disciplines, and the dominant paradigms within them, evolve and change in response to the shifting and tides of different approaches in theory and practice, which in turn respond to the wider world in which they sit. Think Marxism and history in the twentieth century, or the various “turns” across the humanities of the same period – cultural, quantitative, spatial, visual and so on. All of these are, to one extent or another, responses to emerging phenomena, technologies and ideas in society and culture outside the ivory tower, as well as those in academia. The only way in which Digital Humanities differs is the volume, scale and impact of interventions which “the digital” has had. In my own experience, the field of DH has striven hard and fast, sometimes with success, sometimes without, to keep up with these developments. This both explains and justifies the interest in “Big Tent” DH. It is also behind “computational turn” interventions in the humanities which seek to fuse and transcend the domain’s “traditional” disciplines, rather than make their work faster or more efficient, or deal with larger and larger quantities of data.

Yet the digital revolution which has fuelled and empowered DH in so many ways, also has a well-known and obvious darker side: misinformation, bias, polarization, disconnection and the risk of abuse in the digital Wild West of the internet. Without a careful critique of “the digital” in DH, and the human work of researching and teaching it, we risk replicating and even amplifying these in the field. A critical reflection (in both senses of the term) on this was recently made by Laura Estill and others, as former programme chairs of the annual DH conference. They observed that the conference itself, which – alongside the developments in the wider world of tech in society and culture just described - has expanded in scope, visibility and scale, becoming implicitly “representative” of the DH community. The problem with this, they argue, is that it has not similarly expanded in terms of the equality, diversity and inclusion of the community it represents. They argue that a rethink of the conference is required which highlights “justice rather than merit, equity rather than innovation, polyvocality rather than canons, differences rather than standards, and inclusion rather than gatekeeping” (ADHO’s response to their critique can be read here). Away from the conference, exactly the same principles must apply to the field’s more abstract, intellectual and methodological responses to galloping change in the wider world.

The boundaries of Digital Humanities can never be made definitive when “the Digital” is evolving faster than ever before, and when the boundaries between “the human” and the “digital” are increasingly blurred. It is therefore counterproductive to attempt to define a rigorous methodological framework (mirroring, whether consciously or not, the disciplinary norms of the qualitative and quantitative social sciences) which contains the discipline in a critical way. Rather, a research agenda must be developed which draws is inclusive and which reflects a broader spectrum of approaches; and which draws on the field’s rich history.

About the Author

Stuart Dunn is Professor of Spatial Humanities at King's College London, where he also served as Head of the Department of Digital Humanities between 2019 and 2023. Stuart gained an interdisciplinary PhD on Aegean Bronze Age dating methods and palaeovolcanology from the University of Durham in 2002, conducting fieldwork in Melos, Crete and Santorini. In 2006 he became a Research Associate at the Arts and Humanities e-Science Support Centre, having previously worked at the AHRC, after which he became a Lecturer in the Department of Digital Humanities. He is also a Visiting Professor at Riga Technical University and a Visiting Fellow of the Centre for Digital Humanities at the Australian National University. Stuart is author of A History of Place in the Digital Age (Routledge, 2019), co-author of Academic Crowdsourcing (Chandos, 2017), and co-editor of Routledge’s International Handbook of Research Methods in Digital Humanities (2020). 


Terras, Melissa M., Julianne Nyhan, and Edward Vanhoutte. 2013. Defining Digital Humanities : A Reader. Farnham, Surrey : Ashgate, [2013].