Towards a Truly Global Digital Humanities
By Diana Roig-Sanz
The idea that the digital humanities enjoy a global scope remains utopian. Most of the departments and research institutions that house postgraduate studies, summer schools, international conferences, and scientific journals on the matter remain anchored in the Global North, especially in certain countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. These spaces have close ties to the field’s founding fathers: Franco Moretti and the Stanford Literary Lab, now under the direction of Marc Algee-Hewitt; Matthew Jockers, at the Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, who recently abandoned his lengthy scholarly life to join Apple; Willard McCarthy from King’s College; or Howard Hotson and Arno Bosse, directors of the Cultures of Knowledge project at the University of Oxford since 2009 with funds from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. This generation of researchers and their notable projects, generally in the field of literature, were followed by valuable contributions from Ted Underwood at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign and Andrew Piper, who pioneered the Journal of Cultural Analytics at McGill University in Montreal.
Without aiming to be exhaustive, and keeping in mind that the digital humanities have been interdisciplinary since their inception, let me also highlight a few milestones that were undoubtedly relevant, but that also attest to the still Western history of the field. In 1966, the first issue of Computers and the Humanities was published by Kluwer in The Netherlands; in 1986, Literary and Linguistic Computing (LLC), now Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, was published on behalf of the European Association for Digital Humanities; and in 2003, the relevant Companion to Digital Humanities came out, edited by two North American researchers. Regarding summer schools, the most well-known are still the European Summer University Digital Humanities School of Leipzig University, the Oxford Summer School in Digital Humanities, which celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2021, and the Digital Humanities Summer Institute of the University of Victoria in Canada.
While DH holds potential for transregional research, this is not (yet) the reality. Within this general framework, over the last few years it has become clear that digital humanities must not only include more linguistic and geographic diversity in all conferences and publications, but it must also put at the center of the discussion the research and reflections of those scholars outside the main research hubs of the digital humanities field. As such, researchers critiquing this Global North approach, even when working in European, Canadian, or US American universities, can contribute critical perspectives to what has been accomplished thus far, as is the case with Isabel Galina in Mexico; Domenico Fiormonte in Italy; Gimena del Rio Riande in Argentina; Rocío Ortuño in Belgium and the Philippines; David Wrisley, first in Lebanon, and then in Abu Dhabi; Laura Fólica and the ERC project MapModern – Social Networks of the Past: Mapping Hispanic and Lusophone Literary Modernity, 1898-1959, in Barcelona; or Roopika Risam, from the United States, who applies an interesting postcolonial perspective to the field by developing digital projects for other spaces, such as Southeast Asia and the Black Atlantic.
The efforts made by these researchers highlight the significant biases still being reproduced when it comes to represented geographies, the uneven distribution of certain tools, the lack of budgets and the need for open and democratic access to data and knowledge, the absence of women in digital and non-digital histories, or fundamental racial and ethnicity disparities. Thus, it is imperative to promote training and the search for common standards, but also more awareness regarding unequal access to technology, gender biases, and often-ignored research developed in the Global South and in places that have been addressed less frequently by mainstream literature, in which English and the Anglophone world prevail above all other languages and literary cultures. This group of researchers continue to discuss methods, theories, and tools, but also claim for more inclusion and multilingualism, and for more complex and less Western and Eurocentric narratives.
This view, for instance, has translated to a change in where the latest European Association for Digital Humanities Conference, chaired by Elisabeth Burr, was held in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, and thereby celebrated outside the European continent for the first time in its history. The conference, kept online due to the pandemic, included, even in its call for papers, the use of English, French, German, Italian, Russian, and Spanish. It is also worth noting that the next conference for the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO) will be held in Japan in 2022 with the theme “Responding to Asian Diversity”. Its main objectives include promoting research developed in Asia, particularly the study of tools that can be used for digital humanities projects in languages such as Chinese and Korean. There are also some other initiatives aiming at including the perspectives of the Global South such as the network Global Outlook: Digital Humanities, which promotes collaboration among researchers working on digital arts, digital humanities, and cultural heritage.
This new generation of researchers in digital humanities is also aware of the need to combine distant reading with close reading and spark dialog between macro- and micro-analyses, as macrodata is time consuming and often involve potential biases and incomplete research. For instance, we may not always be able to access exhaustive or perfectly structured datasets, and issues with often unfeasible time-investment requirements can affect projects when it comes to extracting, consistently structuring, cleaning, processing, and analyzing and visualizing data. As such, it seems clear that a digital-humanities focus should not only be more egalitarian at the linguistic and geographical levels, but also more aware of the discipline’s potentials and pitfalls, and of the place we give to data interpretation, which is inextricably linked to each researcher’s qualitative knowledge of their own object of study. Here, we should recall our discussion on what a dataset is, on what big and little data are in the humanities, as Christine Borgman has pointed out, and on the issue of representation versus exhaustivity. All of these issues deserve more careful reflections than this space permits but are worth mentioning nonetheless.
The methodological challenges regarding dataset construction and interpretation may invite us to establish further collaboration between projects and researchers and to forge a stable community that can contribute with shared data and tools. Discussions on data preservation remain relevant to this day and should lead us to consider the need to establish standards and protocols for a broad research community with reusable and open tools. Not all researchers in the world are able to pay for expensive licenses and software that are not available through open access on top of hiring data scientists who can contribute to the research. Without a doubt, the results of large, well-funded projects help, as do the efforts of certain institutions like the Ibero-American Institution of Berlin, which has digitized many Latin American journals, or the bne.es community at the National Library of Spain, which makes digital humanities projects that can generate collaboration visible.
However, these new initiatives are limited to certain countries, while other spaces and cultures sadly end up relying on Central European, Canadian, and US American funds even when it comes to the retrieval of a cultural heritage that lies outside their own boundaries. Other general dissemination platforms like Wikipedia or Wikidata have also made relevant contributions, even though there is still room for improvement regarding geographical, linguistic, and gender representation. For instance, we might highlight the Women in Red WikiProject, which aims to recover the stories and contributions of women who have been made invisible by mainstream history.
Finally, even though over its first years the digital humanities field was centered on specific subfields like corpus studies, digital editing of manuscripts, and literary studies (especially regarding the Middle Ages), over the last few years other disciplines have also benefitted from the digital turn. We might mention the work by Béatrice Joyeux-Prunel on art history (Geneva), Martin Grandjean’s (Lausanne), Marten Düring’s (Luxembourg) and Elisabet Carbo’s (UOC, Barcelona) research on intellectual history, or the research by Daniela Treveri (Oxford), Malte Hagener (Marburg), Julia Noordegraaf (Amsterdam), as well as Ainamar Clariana (UOC, Barcelona) and Pablo Suárez-Mansilla (UOC, Barcelona) on the digital history of film and the preservation of its archive. These examples are only a few harbingers of a promising future with a long trajectory and new research avenues that we can only expect to grow and expand.
Diana Roig-Sanz is an ICREA Research Professor and an ERC Starting Grant holder at the IN3 (UOC). She is the coordinator of the Global Literary Studies Research Lab and the principal investigator (alongside Laura Fólica) of the research line Global Translation Flows. She is the principal investigator of the ERC StG project “Social Networks of the Past: Mapping Hispanic and Lusophone Literary Modernity, 1898-1959” (Grant Agreement: 803860). She has been a Ramón y Cajal Research Fellow and a visiting professor at the Oxford Internet Institute at the University of Oxford and has conducted research residencies and postdoctoral fellowships at top-ranked institutions, such as the Centre for Translation Studies (KU Leuven), the Institut d’Histoire Moderne et Contemporaine (École Normale Supérieure), the Department of European and Intercultural Studies (La Sapienza), and the Amsterdam School for Cultural Analysis (Amsterdam). Her research interests deal with cultural and global literary history and sociology of translation from a digital humanities approach. Her successive projects have been based on a consistent and fruitful line of research focusing on cultural transfer and the circulation of cultural goods. In this respect, she has always strived to challenge former scholarly interpretations and develop new original research along global and digital approaches.
Further articles in the Digital Humanities Interface series on TRAFO:
Susan Grunewald, Ruth Mostern, and Karl Grossner, The World Historical Gazetteer: A Digital Humanities Interface for Transregional Research, 21 February 2022
Thorben Pelzer, Retracing Professional Mobility: Historical Network Analysis through CERD, 11 November 2021
Ninja Steinbach-Hüther and Thomas Efer, The Digital Humanities Interface – An Introduction, 28 September 2021
Citation: Diana Roig-Sanz, Towards a Truly Global Digital Humanities, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 20.04.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/36011