Heterogeneous Humanities, or: Do the Digital Humanities work in a “Mode 2” way of knowledge production?
For a while now, I have been wondering how working with digital data, tools and methods changes the way we work in the humanities. Qualitative tagging of literary phenomena leads to a formalization of them and to the ability to model complex phenomena, for example. And quantitative text analysis can give us a much more distant and broader view of trends in literary history. So, how do certain trends and ways of working in the digital humanities relate to more general trends in the humanities and social sciences? Are the digital humanities at the forefront of trends which will affect all humanities and social sciences in the long run? One could think of new modes of publication and peer review, to point to just one thing among many. Are they bringing trends from the hard sciences into the realm of humanities? Here, on could think of the trend towards evidence-based research, for instance. And does this mean they bring things that that don’t belong there, such as empiricism, positivism, big science, or could this in some way be beneficial to the humanities? Things like formalization, reproducibility, or more time for interpretation could be good, after all. Do the digital humanities change the relations between hard sciences, social sciences, and humanities? Aren’t we all moving from one area to the next today with considerable ease, as the “map of science” created by clickstream data (see graphic below) suggests? Are the digital humanities particularly responsive to wider trends in society, like the commodification of knowledge or the web 2.0? And so on.
There is an already somewhat aged (or established) conceptualization of research activity that seems helpful in order to understand larger trends in the way research is conducted in the humanities and the social sciences today, and useful when trying to understand the digital humanities in their relation to such larger trends. This conceptualization consists of the two modes of knowledge production which Michael Gibbons, Helga Nowotny and others suggested in their book about The New Production of Knowledge back in 1994 .
What they basically do in that book is contrast two modes of knowledge production in research (mainly in the hard sciences, but they do talk of the humanities as well, although from the somewhat strange angle of the cultural industry sector). Each of the two modes has a historical root (although the account of the chronology of the two modes is highly disputed in the literature about the initial proposal) and a number of characteristics which, taken together, constitute a relatively coherent and self-stabilising set of values, conventions, and frames for research. While Mode 1 is rooted in Newtonian physics and is primarily used as a foil against which to describe Mode 2, that second more “heterogeneous” or “socially distributed” mode is the real object of the book. It seems interesting to investigate the degree to which the humanities generally, and the digital humanities in particular, correspond to this second mode of knowledge production. But first, let’s remind ourselves of what is meant by “Mode 2” knowledge production (as set out in the Introduction to The New Production of Knowledge, pp. 3-11).
The five basic characteristics of “Mode 2” of knowledge production
- Context of Application. The first characteristic of mode 2 knowlege production is that it takes place in an inherent context of application, which means that instead of a distinction between basic and applied research, there is a deep connection and constant identity of application-orientation and the solution of fundamental research questions.
- Transdisciplinarity. The second characteristic of mode 2 is that it takes place in a transdisciplinary setting. Rather than happening inside sharply distinguished disciplinary boundaries and specialisations, it takes place in constantly shifting configurations of heterogeneous teams. Rather than just being multidisciplinary, these teams need to agree on a common framework and vocabulary to solve the problem at hand.
- Heterogeneity. The third characteristic of mode 2 is that it takes place in heterogeneous institutional settings, not just inside clearly defined departments of universities and government agencies, but also and jointly in think-tanks, consultancy firms, companies, private-public partnerships, science parks, and many more. As a consequence, the methods and practices will also be much more heterogeneous and flexible, and there develops an intricate network of communication between all the different sites in collaboration.
- Reflexivity. The fourth characteristic of mode 2 is that is shows increased reflexivity, which is a somewhat tricky concept but basically means that the research process is more dialogic, makes its own bases more explicit to the other members of the team, and is more aware of its social or environmental implications and research’s accountability in this perspective.
- Quality Assessment. The fifth and final characteristic of mode 2 is that it includes new ways of quality assessment. Instead of review by a small circle of peers, the quality of research or new knowledge is assessed by a broader and more heterogeneous set of actors, both from those close to the research process and those belonging primarily to the sphere of society.
“Mode 2” and the Digital Humanities
What is the picture when looking at the digital humanities? It has been argued that, rather than being a coherent set of characteristics which are so closely tied together as to be practically inseparable, these five characteristics actually form independent factors which can be used to describe, rather than research as a whole, the ways in which certain areas or fields of research are doing producing innovation, knowledge and insight. So, are the digital humanities “heterogeneous humanities”? Please remember that these are only some initial thoughts on the question, and I suppose a lot depends on your vision of the digital humanities, your position in it, and your experience with different aspects of this field. (Please don’t hesitate to state your point of view in the comments!)
- As for the inherent context of application, this does not happen, in the digital humanities, in the way of products being sold to industry or developed with industry. However, there are two interesting aspects to this in the digitial humanities. The first is that the products of digital humanities inquiries often lend themselves to public display, be it online, in physical exhibitions, or as smartphone apps, because of the element of visualisation, animation and interactivity which many DH methods imply. This in fact means that the interaction of the Digital Humanities with the cultural sector may well be considered its primary field of “application” outside of research itself, but of course heuristic visualisations are themselves driving research. The second aspect, which relates to this last point, concerns the debate about “hack vs. yack” in DH. It has been argued that this is in fact a false dichotomy, and that one of the strengths of DH is in fact to show how “building things” is informed by and a manifestation of theoretical reflection, and that theory in DH usually also leads to some kind of modified practice.
- Of course, transdisciplinarity (and not just multi-disciplinarity) is inherent in the Digital Humanities. I do believe that successful DH research happens when computer scientists, statisticians, data visualization specialists and humanities’ scholars come together not just by working alongside each other, but by defining the terms of the problem and the solutions together, when each participant in the process is changed by the interaction with the other team members (those are precious moments, when that happens). In any case, digital humanities research relies much more on technology and instruments whose basis (if not their entire development) lie in areas outside of the field itself. This also means, but I may be mistaken, that this kind of transdisciplinarity comes more natural to DH than to “normal” humanities scholarship, and that this difference may be stable.
- I have to admit I have no really clear stance on the issue of heterogeneity in DH. Most of the people I know in DH work in university departments (humanities’ and computer science departments, mostly), academies of science, and research and development units of libraries. Of course, quite a lot of DH work is also happening in museums, archives, libraries. And IT departments also play an important role. But science parks, think tanks, government agencies, software companies? Probably also, but I have no clear idea or data about the extent to which research in DH has spread to such places. What is clear, however, is that the geographical distribution of actors in DH projects is much larger than is typical of disciplinary humanities research (although this may also be changing), and that as a consequence, the global communication networks, means of communication, and flows of information are extremely dense, varied and active.
- The humanities, of course (as the authors of the initial proposal note themselves), seem to be a natural site for reflexivity. Humanities scholars are good at reflecting on the meaning, context, and the basis of what they are doing. Disciplines such as philosophy and literary studies are sites of thinking about ethics and the meaning of human pursuits, and therefore they are good at shaping what research agendas are worth and valuable to be pursued. At the same time, the issue of social accountabilty of humanities research, especially when it is reduced to the immediate (and if possible, monetary) usefulness of the knowledge produced by the humanities, is not such an easy topic. Here, I believe that the digital humanities do not stand far apart from traditional humanities; the issue concerns both areas in a similar way.
- Finally, quality assessment. This is an area where it seems very clear that the digital humanities are thinking about and experimenting with new models of publication and of peer review which follow principles made possible by the web, such as “publish first, review later”, or open peer review and open access. Many of the advances in this area have originated in the sciences, but the digital humanities seem to adapt them to their needs and possibly the needs of the humanities generally. Outside of DH, print journals and books are clearly still the norm, however shaky the foundations of that norm are becoming.
Basically, then, it seems to me that the five characteristics of “Mode 2” knowledge production are sufficiently flexible for them to be interpreted in ways to make the digital humanities look very “mode 2-ish”, and more so than the traditional humanities in many respects. But are they, really? And if so, does this fact stem from an internal necessity or an ethos of heterogeneity, or does it stem from forces and trends outside the humanities which are shaping all research and knowledge production in the 21st century? The major driving force of all these trends seems to be the digitisation of primary sources, of modes of communication, of tools and methods, and of dissemination channels. This may also suggest that digitisation, although it is embraced by digital humanities right now, will ultimately and inevitably affect all of the humanities, making the digital humanities a model for the humanities but based on outside factors, not inherent superiority.
This last point actually leads me to realize that in writing this post, I have had a tendency to create a dichotomy between so-called traditional disciplinary research in the humanities and heterogeneous digital humanities research. More worrisome still, I can detect a tendency to believe that what is strongly apparent in digital humanities research is also emerging in or spreading to the traditional humanities, as if the digital humanities were some kind of a model for the others to follow. I feel uneasy about this because I otherwise firmly believe that pitting digital humanities against traditional humanities is not very productive. Also, rather than trying to institute DH as some kind of super-humanities, it seems much more important and useful for digital methods to be adopted, selectively and wherever useful, by any and all humanites scholars. Don’t we sometimes say that the ultimate success of the digital humanities will manifest itself by the fact that we will all drop the ‘digital’ and just speak about the humanities again?
 Gibbons, Michael et al. The new production of knowledge : the dynamics of science and research in contemporary societies. London; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, 1994. A very useful contextualization of the theory is provided by Hessels, Laurens K., and Harro van Lente. “Re-thinking New Knowledge Production: A Literature Review and a Research Agenda.” Research Policy 37.4 (2008): 740–760.