What Does Digital Humanities Bring to the Table?

By gretchen | September 27, 2012

By Michael J. Kramer

Using the spreadsheet to connect evidence to argument

For most humanists, spreadsheets makes their eyes glaze over. There is even an ominous sense of imprisonment: one must literally put ideas into cell blocks. The database would seem to limit the subtlety and dexterity of humanistic analysis in problematic ways. It insists on squeezing the messy realities of life, ideas, emotions, practices, art, and expression into neat rows and columns. Metaphorically speaking, we go from the diverse architecture, natural topography, and even entropy of the world to a system of standardization: from undulating hills, inventive buildings, and people in all their strangeness to parking lots, faceless office towers, and cubicles of corporate capitalism in its most terrifying structural forms. Everything must fit, regardless of its size, shape, inner dimensions, or odd configurations. Standard deviation is allowed, but not just plain old deviation, and certainly not deviance. Such is the age of “big data” in its most troublesome dimensions.

But what if the table could be put to use for humanistic analysis? Developing “good” data can undergird new searches for patterns, visualization, and algorithmic analysis. But there is an additional way that tables might be useful: not as the platform for statistical manipulation or coded patterning, but as a bridge between evidence and argument.

This is a simpler—deceptively simpler—use of the table, one that seeks to move beyond the drift toward positivist dreams found in the use of big data systems analysis for digital humanities.

Read full post here. (Originally posted September 25, 2012)