Centre for Digital Humanities

Abstract webinar Max Kemman (February 18, 2022)

Studying Digital History as Cross-Disciplinary Trading Zones

As long as there have been computers, there have been scholars pulling at historians, challenging them to use these computers for historical research. Yet what role computers can have in historical research is a matter of continuous debate. Under the signifier of “digital history”, historians have experimented with tools, concepts, and methods from other disciplines, mostly computer science and computational linguistics, to benefit the historical discipline. The collaborations that emerge through these experiments can be characterised as a two-sided uncertainty: historians uncertain how they as historians should use digital methods, and computational experts uncertain how digital methods should work with historical data sets. The opportunity that arises from these uncertainties is that historians and computational experts need to negotiate the methods and concepts under development.

To study these local cross-disciplinary negotiations I employ the concept of trading zones by the historian of science Peter Galison and develop this into a framework based on three dimensions. The first dimension, engagement (connected-disconnected), describes the extent to which the two communities meet and interact. That is, a collaboration where historians and computational experts share an office and meet on a daily basis is different from one where communication is done once a month per email. The second dimension, power relations (symmetric-asymmetric), describes the extent to which one community has a stronger negotiating power to decide goals and practices than the other community. For example, computational experts may push a tool for historians while historians remain unable to adapt the tool to their needs. Finally, the dimension of changing practices (homogeneous-heterogeneous) describes the extent to which a collaboration remains an interaction of distinct communities or merges into a singular community of shared practices. That is, whether these collaborators remain distinct historians and computational experts or blend into a community of digital historians.

In this talk I elaborate the framework and how it aids analysis of digital history collaborations as trading zones. Not only does this framework support comparative analysis of digital history collaborations, it supports longitudinal analyses to show how collaborations develop over time. Based on my ethnographic research I describe several case studies, how they differed across the three dimensions and how these various cross-disciplinary interactions lead to different trading zones.

I argue that digital history does not occupy a singular position between the digital and the historical. Instead, historians continuously move between the digital and the historical, emphasising at times the digital while at other times focusing on the historical. Historians thereby choose or find themselves in different positions as they construct different trading zones through cross-disciplinary engagement, negotiation of research goals and individual interests.


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