Article Critique: Have DH Scholars Ditched Qualitative Research?

As man and machine meld, are our research methods balanced enough to examine the consequences?
Where is the balance?: According to Porsdam Digital Humanities research requires “a better balance between the how and the what” (2013, Para.1). (Image from: https://www.brandman.edu/files/blog/man-vs-machine.jpg)

In the Article “Digital Humanities: On Finding the Proper Balance Between Qualitative and Quantitative Ways of Doing Research in the Humanities”, Helle Porsdam explores the lack of qualitative research in Digital Humanities (DH) Scholarship. Early in the Article Porsdam clearly identifies an imbalance in DH research,  stating that DH scholars “continue to be more interested in how we connect than in the substance and dialogue of that very connectedness” (2013, Para.1). I found this statement intriguing because Porsdam’s depiction of DH’s focus on the ‘how’ instead of the ‘substance and dialogue’ stood in contrast to the scholarship I had experienced throughout my own humanities education as a English language and literature student. Furthermore, when comparing Porsdam’s description of the predominant focus of DH scholarship to the readings and research we have explored throughout the past 10 weeks of LIS9372, I find myself agreeing with her argument. 

Even the definitions of DH I have encountered seem to demonstrate this unbalanced approach that Porsdam identifies. For example, in Christine Borgman’s article “The Digital Future is Now: A Call to Action for the Humanities”, Borgman’s definition of DH demonstrates a focus on the quantitative rather than the qualitative; she states “the digital humanities is a new set of practices, using new sets of technologies, to address research problems of the discipline” (Borgman, 2009, Para.3). Borgman’s definition demonstrates a focus on ‘technologies’ and ‘practices’, or what Porsdam refers to as the ‘how’, and does not incorporate topics related to theory or ethics in her definition of DH. Borgman’s definition is just one example that highlights the relevance of the argument Prosdam’s article brings to the forefront. 

After identifying the unbalanced approach to research present in DH scholarship, Porsdam goes on to discuss why DH scholars may have an aversion to qualitative research. Overall, Porsdam notes a movement towards the quantitative as a means to legitimize DH by aligning it with models and methods used by science and social science scholars rather than the qualitative approach used in humanities scholarship (Porsdam, 2013). However, the article also explores why abandoning the models used in more traditional humanities scholarship may not be the answer; Porsdam states, “[s]eeking to be like the social sciences and the natural sciences by appropriating quantifying methods and approaches will not make the humanities less, but more obsolete (Porsdam, 2013, Para. 6). This statement is insightful because it forces DH scholars to question the motivation behind their methods. Appropriating quantitative research methods or modes of scholarship that have been successfully employed in other disciplines does not guarantee successful DH research. Furthermore, these methods alone certainly do not produce the kind of new and groundbreaking scholarship most DH scholars aim to produce.

The Humanities as out-of-touch: This mainstream depiction of humanities scholars demonstrates a popular belief that studying the humanities is tedious and unproductive.
The Humanities as out-of-touch: This mainstream depiction of humanities scholars demonstrates a popular belief that studying the humanities is tedious and unproductive.

However, Porsdam does not call for a total abandonment of these quantitative methods, instead, she explores and highlights the benefits of a combination of methods, a balanced scholarship. This type of balance is demonstrated most aptly through Porsdam’s discussion of the DH scholar’s need to become a hedgefox, that is “[a] hybrid creature who combine[s] the hedgehog’s ability to go deep with the fox’s wide-ranging curiosity” (Porsdam, 2013, Para.3). This metaphor is carried throughout the paper and serves as an example of how to conduct balanced scholarship. However, Porsdam’s discussion of the hedgefox does run the risk of oversimplifying the reconciliation of qualitative and quantitative focuses in DH scholarship. Overall, this article would benefit from providing examples of research or scholarship that has achieved this balance, and analyzing the elements that made these projects successful.

Ultimately, “Digital Humanities: On Finding the Proper Balance Between Qualitative and Quantitative Ways of Doing Research in the Humanities” weaves an important argument for the balance of research methods and modes of scholarship. However, it also goes beyond a simple exploration and creates a convincing call to action for all DH scholars, a rally cry that encourages them to push beyond the conventional one-sided approach and create new, dynamic, and hybrid research methods. In my opinion, it is important for DH (especially as a relatively new discipline) to take a moment to reflect upon the current practices of the discipline. As Patrik Svensson states, “[t]here is clear evidence that the terrain of digital humanities is not stable nor fixed” (2012, Para. 19); keeping this in mind, it is clear that Porsdam’s article encourages DH scholars to remould the ‘terrain’ and reshape the ability of DH to produce relevant and revolutionary research.


 

Borgman, C. L. (2009). The Digital Future is Now: A Call to Action for the Humanities, 3(4).
     Retrieved from http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/4/000077/000077.html
Cham, J. (n.d.). PHD Comics: Post Avant-garde Limmericks. Retrieved July 21, 2015, from
     http://www.phdcomics.com/comics/archive.php?comicid=966
Porsdam, H. (2013). Digital Humanities: On Finding the Proper Balance between Qualitative and
     Quantitative Ways of Doing Research in the Humanities, 7(3). Retrieved from
     http://digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/7/3/000167/000167.html
Svensson, P. (2012). Envisioning the Digital Humanities, 6(1). Retrieved from
     http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/6/1/000112/000112.html

 

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