‘Digital Humanities’: Two Definitions

Those of us working in or close to the field of Digital Humanities know that the very definition of the term has been vexed from its inception–in my opinion, moreso than typical academic fields.

I’ll not go into them in depth here, but two of my major concerns about the term have been that (a) the literal meaning of the term implies (and, to at least a minority, means) that non-DH practitioners are non-digital humanities professors; (b) the field is much more narrowly defined than the literal meaning of the term suggests.

Whenever we start to debate about these matters–and debates have been particularly numerous lately–it seems like at bottom there are two very important conceptions. The first is sometimes called the “narrow” definition of DH, or recently “‘DH’ with capital letters,” or what I and some others refer to as “tools-and-archives.” One of the things that is strange about this definition is that few of the most prominent voices in the field seem to like it (although it also appears to be the most influential definition with regard to funding and hiring), so when these definition discussions happen, we tend to arrive quickly at violent agreement that what I’ll call the second definition should obtain: the “big tent” definition, or what I’d call the plain literal meaning of the term “digital humanities” (or recently, “dh” with small letters): anything that combines digital work of any sort with humanities work of any sort.

One of the frustrating things about these debates is that sometimes people seem to shift back and forth between the two definitions, insisting on the narrow interpretation in some contexts, but then shifting to the wide one in others. It’s also frustrating that, in public, so many champion the “big tent” definition, but that when looking at the main funding bodies for DH and the majority of job postings, the narrow definition seems to obtain regardless.

Having had a long personal experience with this pattern of shifting definitions, I have found myself profoundly frustrated by the debate, not least because so many of the active practitioners in the field seem to like the “broad” definition, which is of course the one I prefer.

Yet I’ve never seen quite as direct an example of this definitional conflict as we’ve just had. That comes courtesy of the recent book Digital_Humanities, by Anne Burdick, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner, and Jeffrey Schnapp (MIT Press, 2012). Schnapp recently put up pages 121-136 from this book as a “Short Guide to Digital Humanities,” which got quite a few members of the DH community talking on Twitter.

Something about this text struck me as very, very odd. Three of its authors–Drucker, Lunenfeld, and Presner–are faculty members listed as part of the Steering Committee of the UCLA Center for Digital Humanities. It’s hard to imagine that these three were not highly influential in the drafting of the “What Is DH?” section of their website–indeed, it’s hard not to imagine that at least some of them actually drafted it. Part of that definition reads (the bolded part is bolded on their site):

Digital Humanities interprets the cultural and social impact of new media and information technologies–the fundamental components of the new information age–as well as creates and applies these technologies to answer cultural, social, historical, and philological questions, both those traditionally conceived and those only enabled by new technologies.


Digital Humanities practices are not limited to conventional humanities departments at UCLA, but can affect every humanistic field at the university, both those within the Division of the Humanities, and those in other divisions, including history, anthropology, arts and architecture, information studies, film and media studies, archaeology, geography, ethnic studies, and the social sciences. At the same time, Digital Humanities is a natural outgrowth and expansion of the traditional scope of the Humanities, not a replacement or rejection of traditional humanistic inquiry. In fact, the role of the humanist is critical at this historic moment, as our cultural legacy is migrated to digital formats and our relation to knowledge, cultural material, technology, and society is radically re-conceptualized.


As we train students to enter the world of the 21st century, there are significant technological, social, cultural, and intellectual skills that they need to master. These skills include literacy in both traditional and new media, the technical skills related to this literacy, the development of tools for critical analysis, the ability to navigate across, reconfigure, and evaluate different media forms, the ability to synthesize information and bring together different media and methodologies to solve complex problems, the ability to construct models and visualizations for interpreting large-scale datasets, the ability to design information systems and technology platforms to ensure the long-term preservation and sustainability of digital data, and the ability to critically evaluate the potentials and limitations of new technologies. At its core, Digital Humanities addresses these issues by teaching students to create and critique media content, to develop the necessary skills and abilities to evaluate this content, to manipulate and transform digital technologies, and to develop the requisite literacy across information environments and media forms, including textual, aural, visual, and digital domains.

Now if you read these sections very, very carefully, they tend toward the “narrow” definition of DH, but they go out of their way to make it seem otherwise, with consistent reference to “interpretation,” to “new media,” to “include,” to “cultural and social impact.” There is an explicit awareness in this definition that humanists (and administrators) not “part of” DH may see it as harboring some kind of desire to “replace or reject” what they call (in what I consider a highly tendentious fashion) “traditional humanistic inquiry.” This definition seems worried that people might find DH exclusionary, and works hard to paint an inclusive picture.

Since it appeared, I have used this definition in my own papers and presentations because it strikes me as doing double work–not quite telling the whole truth as fully as it could, and thus looking like it doesn’t take issue with the “big tent” definition while relatively quietly insisting on the “narrow” definition.

DH wordle

Word cloud of The Digital Humanities and Humanities Computing: An Introduction by S Schreibman, R Siemens, & J Unsworth (from http://tdbowman.com/wp/2012/09/08/scientometrics-scholarly-communication-and-big-data-oh-my/)

So now contrast the language in the Digital_Humanities book, by, I think it’s fair to say, the same authors:

What isn’t the Digital Humanities?
The mere use of digital tools for the purpose of humanistic research and communication does not qualify as Digital Humanities. Nor, as already noted, is Digital Humanities to be understood as the study of digital artifacts, new media, or contemporary culture in place of physical artifacts, old media, or historical culture.

On the contrary, Digital Humanities understands its object of study as the entire human record, from prehistory to the present. This is why fields such as classics and archaeology have played just as important
a role in the development of Digital Humanities as has, for example, media studies. This is also why some of the major sectors of Digital Humanities research extend outside the traditional core of the humanities to embrace quantitative methods from the social and natural sciences as well as techniques and modes of thinking from the arts.

Note that this language, dismissive, assured, and not worried about outsiders looking in–indeed, part of a section telling academics how to evaluate DH work for tenure–directly contradicts the bolded section of the definition on UCLA’s own website, where “interprets the cultural and social impact of new media” is among the first descriptions offered. In fact, “interpreting new media” is specifically one of the contentious areas in the fights about DH definition–part of what most of the big-tenters would like included, and what we feel the narrow-DHers purposely exclude (although the justification for this exclusion is rarely if ever made clear). (In a future posting, I hope to have the chance to reflect on a particular concern about explicit ruling-out of digital tool use as a part of DH.)

I will say as carefully as possible that this dynamic is exactly what I have seen in DH: one unthreatening, expansive definition when outsiders look in, another, exclusionary, imposed by a small but powerful and influential subset of DHers, forcefully advocated behind the scenes.

I’ve even seen it from some of these very people.

But never, before, have I seen it so clearly and demonstrably in public. I hope that the great majority of DHers who endorse the big-tent definition will use this as impetus to insist even more forcefully and even more loudly in public that the narrow definition is unacceptable.

The Digital_Humanities book is written as if it speaks with authority over both what the field is and how it should be practiced, although it does not appear to do much to explain the source for that authority. As an outspoken fan of the “big tent” definition, I encourage everyone else who favors that definition to make sure their voices are heard.


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