Towards deep understanding of digitalisation

Digital humanities enthusiasts met on 10-11 September at the Aleksanteri Institute in a workshop ‘(Politics of) Digital Humanities in Eastern European Studies’ organised together with the Herder Institute for Historical Research on East Central Europe (Marburg, Germany).

Two days of discussing digital humanities (DH) and networking with colleagues proved to be fruitful for participants and a follow-up is coming in the near future.

— The initiative was warmly welcomed, says Mila Oiva, a postdoctoral researcher of cultural history (University of Turku). There has been a demand for academic events with focus on Eastern Europe and DH. 

While the entire concept of Digital Humanities might be a bit unclear to many scholars and laymen of more traditional stance, the group that gathered at the workshop had been working with the methodologies of data driven reasearch for some time. Depending on the focus area and academic background, DH can cover such diverse fields as computational linguistics, memory politics or analysis of bloggers as social actors. According to the Wikipedia definition, "it is an area of scholarly activity at the intersection of computing or digital technologies and the disciplines of the humanities”. 

A new field under formation

Felix Herrmann from the University of Bremen has been designing a platform for the interactive discussion of research data among scholars who focus on the post-Soviet region. He notes that DH is developing very quickly and not always in a controlled manner. Philosophy of research and research methods should be developed systematically, according to best practises.

— The challenge is, that graduates from DH transfer into business life instead of remaining at university, says Herrmann.

This is in part due to funding: in order to be really successful and meaningful, DH projects need continuity at a transnational level.

This was also a concern of the director of the Herder institute, Peter Haslinger:

—  We don’t yet have a structure that would guarantee that all the very important digital humanities projects and their results, the data, will still be out there and available in ten years. We need some kind of a European joint effort to secure the sustainability of the research.

Another cause for worries for  the senior professors was that without a developed methodology and practices, DH might produce biased studies.

— At the moment there is a big risk of conducting research in a biased way and with biased materials and sources. If you want to do relevant research in the professional and academic way, you can’t rely on digital sources alone, reminds Markku Kangaspuro, director of the Aleksanteri Institute. 

— We also need tools to make sure we understand how the digital sources are formed and who has produced them. 

Unlimited possibilities?

— The potential of DH in Russian and Eastern European Studies is great. Besides Integrum, where we have almost the whole Russian media starting from about mid-90’s digitalized in one data base, the media in general is moving to the internet as we speak. This opens up a huge bulk of sources, and in the case we can get these sources for the use of research, we really need new research methods and tools also, says Markku Kangaspuro

The new generation of researchers is more willing to embrace the digital sources and methodologies than ever. The development is speeding up as international, multidisciplinary initiatives enable scholars from different disciplines and cultures to learn from each other. There is a growing sense of openness and attempt to establish self-reflective and critical research designs. 

— I think the main secret is to encourage younger scholars to also be experimental and maybe even creating a culture of failure. This would mean a strategy of trial and error that would produce new approaches and new results, concludes Peter Haslinger.

Indeed, openness, well designed research architectures, reproducibility and courage to fail, are critical for the development of the new field. If it succeeds in holding on to these principles, the possibilities seem unlimited.