I wrote the essay below for our ‘Researching Africa in the 21st Century’ class. Hope you’ll enjoy!
This essay will give you an outlay of some of the lessons we were taught surrounding various digital media strategies in class, and my reflections on some of the material and topics discussed. On top of that, I will explain what various methodologies and research methods have come to mean to me personally over the course of these past few weeks – and maybe even more importantly, which ones I plan on putting into practice while conducting research for my master’s thesis in a few months time.
To give you a little more insight into my plans next year, I will briefly describe the organisation I’ll be interning with and doing research for. From January up until March next year, I will be hosted by Alternative Care Initiatives (ACI), a small NGO in Kampala, Uganda. This NGO was established in 2013 to develop and implement alternative care solutions – in collaboration with the Ugandan government and various civil society organizations – to prevent children outside of parental care from being put in orphanages or ‘children’s homes’, as they are often called. ACI looks for family-based solutions, since they believe that children should be raised within their own families and societies whenever possible, as opposed to being raised in childcare institutions. Furthermore, they implement programs throughout the whole of Uganda to preserve families, while they have also reunited children ‘lost’ in childcare programs with their families.
I will start off this essay by reflecting on my own thoughts and expectations at the start of this course – and how my position as a journalist helped me in some ways, but also semi-‘sabotaged’ me in others. I will then go on to give a brief overview of traditional academia’s flaws and how the digital humanities intersect with and add to the more traditional academic research methods and hierarchies. Lastly, I will elaborate on which methods within the digital humanities I’m particularly drawn to and how and why I plan on using a variety of them while doing research for my thesis in 2020.
The duality in my position as a researcher within the digital humanities
Although I have been familiar with traditional research methods within the humanities for quite some time (I completed a bachelor’s degree in African Studies before now pursuing my master’s degree), my knowledge of the digital humanities was rather limited. As I had been working as a journalist for a few years before starting my master’s program, I was familiar with most of the methodologies and concepts being put to use for this particular class (I had written blogs before, both professionally and personally, had done extensive research for different documentaries and had worked on a podcast before, to name a few things) – albeit in an entire different setting.
Initially, I pinned myself down to the fact that academic writing is generally thought to be a lot more structured and formal, when compared to journalistic writing. Where journalism is supposed to appeal to a wider, less informed public using a more sensational style of writing, academic writing generally caters to a smaller group of people within the academic world. On top of that, journalistic articles typically are far less dependent on the assumed background knowledge of the reader. However, once I started attending the ‘Researching Africa in the 21st Century’ course, I became more and more aware of the fact that the clear division between art and academia is fading: the digital humanities especially are moving into a more creative and artistically free direction at a rather high speed. Once I learned how to let go of trying to stick to that seemingly overruling division between these two writing styles, I was able to use my journalistic skills to my advantage: I managed to incorporate my own, journalistic ‘voice’ into my academic style of writing, drawing readers into my texts by making them more lively. This attests to what we were told by Prof. dr. M.E. de Bruijn during the first lecture, which really resonated with me: “In science, allow yourself to be the person you want to be.” I’d like to believe that I’m gradually finding my own voice and path within academia, using my earlier gained knowledge in the work field to my advantage whenever I can.
How the digital humanities help traditional academia move forward
The digital humanities are an area of research that originated at the intersection between traditional academia on one hand, and computing on the other. In other words, the digital humanities make use of methodologies used within the traditional humanities, while combining that with the use of digital content and materials’ origin. In the book Digital_Humanities, Anne Burdick et al. states that “digital approaches are conspicuously collaborative and generative, even as they remain grounded in the traditions of humanistic inquiry.”
I myself was greatly inspired by one of the readings we were required to do for one of our other classes, “Decolonizing the university: New Directions”, by Achille Mbembe. In it, Mbembe describes how the #RhodesMustFall protests in South Africa initially sparked a national and then eventually a global movement that demanded the decolonisation of universities’ curriculums and a wider access to tertiary education (the “democratization of access”, which means that the doors of higher learning shouldn’t just be open to a select group of people). Universities have gradually turned into “large systems of authoritative control and standardization”, advertising tertiary education in such a way that is has become a marketable product first and foremost. This, according to Mbembe, prevents students as well as lecturers from a free pursuit of knowledge. He explains how universities should be required to encourage students to “develop their own intellectual and moral lives as independent individuals”, how students should be allowed – even encouraged – to pave the way outside of our “current knowledge horizons” instead.
I remember discussing the #RhodesMustFall protests during one of my classes a few years ago, taught by Prof. dr. Jan-Bart Gewald. One of the most common misconceptions that kept popping up in this discourse was that many critics assumed ‘decolonising the university’ meant eliminating the voices of white men from universities’ curriculums and canons entirely. Naturally, this wasn’t the aim of the demonstrators: instead, their goal was to challenge biases that had been around for decades, biases that shape and limit the ways in which we understand society and the world around us. Decolonising (access to) our universities, canons and curriculums means that we take into consideration how the identities of academic authors shape their perspectives and opinions. We need to challenge the overruling biases in academics, determine which voices within the academy are viewed as ‘dominant’ and which ones are marginalised, and question ourselves why. We can no longer afford to ignore the ways in which colonialism and the westernisation of universities on a global scale have shaped our way of thinking and the ways in which we view our past, present and future. Mbembe argues that our westernized and “hegemonic notion of knowledge production has (…) set up interpretive frames that make it difficult to think outside of these frames.” To go even further than that, these frames tend to repress opinions and views that fall outside of these frames in any way, shape or form.
It is clear that traditional academia and humanities aren’t free of systematic flaws that need to be addressed continuously. The extent of changes that needs to be made in order to achieve inclusivity on all levels within the academy may seem overwhelming at times, but all the more necessary. I would like to argue that incorporating the digital humanities into traditional academia will help diversify the humanities and make the academy more inclusive overall. In “The Digital Humanities and Democracy”, Andrea Hunter argues that the digital humanities not only change our knowledge of human culture, but also the ways in which that knowledge is being communicated. As stated before, digital humanists utilize technology to try and change – in Hunter’s words – “traditional structures of humanities practice and tradition, by increasing access and participation in the humanities”. I believe that challenging these traditional structures is of vital importance in attempting to diversify the academy, transforming the humanities to become more democratic and allowing researchers to find their position within their field of research, as opposed to being confined to a standardized and overly controlled system. On top of that, the digital humanities require a space in which otherwise marginalized voices become amplified, in which there is room for dialogues that are far less hierarchical than is the case within traditional academia, and in which work is produced that might otherwise be overlooked by the more traditional scholarly channels.
This is also reiterated in Digital_Humanities, in which Burdick et al. state that the digital humanities have greatly widened the possible reach of the different disciplines within the humanities – within the academy, but also outside of it. This is again emphasized by Sarah Pink, who in Advances in Visual Methodology explains that “social science, art and intervention invite new ways of thinking about how we might do visual research”, how these new combinations engage participants and publics on a whole new scale in processing and spreading research, and how this then “invites new ideas and practice” in a digital context. Hunter argues that a number of digital humanists is now focused on creating digital tools that will make it possible for people to “publish their own history and other personal cultural interests” online. Burdick et al. describe how the digital humanities “promote platforms for informed amateur scholarship, and it serves to make humanities research into something of a new multi- player online game with global reach and relevance.” Put simply: the digital humanities focus heavily on creating digital archives that are accessible on a far larger scale than just within the academy. Not only that: the digitalized process of archiving and curating collections requires digital humanists to “critically reflect upon the role of cultural forgetting and loss.” In many ways, the digital humanities have delegated power to a lower level.
Now, of course this doesn’t mean that each and every digital and visual research method should be used in all situations when conducting research. Depending on the project you’re working on, you choose the appropriate methods suitable to the circumstances. In an online interview from October 2009, Sarah Pink argues: “There may be projects in which it’s just not appropriate to film people, to take photographs of them – that they might not feel comfortable. Culturally, it might not be appropriate, it might not add anything to the type of knowledge that you’re generating.”12 This is also emphasized in Pink’s book Advances in Visual Methodology, in which Andrew Clark reiterates that the ways in which visual research is done is equally important as the eventual outcome of the research. Ethical considerations should be seen as “part of the process of knowledge production”, rather than as a beneficial extra to visual research design. Visual cultures are an important part of most societies nowadays, and it is up to the researcher to choose visual research methods that are most appropriate to the situation and societal norms they find themselves in.
Thus, a researcher should be flexible when deciding which methods to apply and is advised to not go into the field with a hard and fixed set of rules, as you cannot fully predict the circumstances you’ll eventually find yourself in. However, it is important to remember that a combination of different visual research methods can help unravel parts of the social reality in which you’re working as a researcher. In this current day and age, the digital has become inevitable in our modern day society, which has – over time – also made the incorporation of digital data and information technology within the humanities inescapable. Smartphones, for instance, have made it increasingly easy to experiment with “new forms of creative expression and actions where boundaries between digital and physical space are blurred”. Furthermore, the humanities, which will lead to more multi-vocal research results, uncovering new transparencies in the process.
The digital research methods I plan on using
As explained before, I will be interning with and conducting research for a small NGO, situated in the Ugandan capital city Kampala, named Alternative Care Initiatives. I’m now leaning towards conducting research for one of the projects that was set up by ACI, named ‘Uganda Care Leavers’ (UCL): a social welfare project that was designed to support young people as well as adults, who have spent all or part of their childhood in institutional care in Uganda. Institutional care in this case includes residential facilities, childcare facilities and orphanages or ‘children’s homes’.
The number of ‘care leavers’ in Uganda is rapidly increasing and UCL was founded in response to the growing need to establish a network, in order to share experiences and help each other wherever possible. The UCL network now consists of roughly five hundred people that are located all over Uganda. UCL regularly conducts research among their network, after which their findings are usually shared with important stakeholders (think of governmental institutions and other NGOs), to improve the general approach to childcare across the whole of Uganda.
At this moment in time, I’m still trying to come up with a proper research question (in collaboration with the NGO and its board of directors), but I do know that I would like to look into the sexual abuse of children in orphanages across Uganda. Orphanages in Sub-Saharan Africa have been proven to be places where minors are more prone to become the victims of sexual exploitation than in family- type situations – perpetrators both being Western volunteers, as well as other children within the facility.
Needless to say, the group of people that I will be researching is extremely vulnerable and as such, I have already agreed with my local supervisor that I will not be recording any interviews on tape. As the participants will be providing me with very sensitive information, they will typically not feel comfortable sharing their story while being recognizable. If they will agree to it, I would like to record their testimonies with a voice recorder – for my own archive, but also to possibly turn into a series of podcast episodes later on. As the interest in the orphanage and ‘voluntourism’ industry and the damage that it does in continually growing (I recently signed with a literary agent and am currently writing a book on this very same topic), I’m assuming that there will be a large group of people outside of the academy who will be interested in my research topic. As for other digital research methods that I plan on using during my time abroad, I will leave that up to the participants I will be working with and the circumstances I will find myself in at that time. As stated before, it is advisable to not head into the field with a hard and fixed set of rules, as there will always be unforeseeable circumstances you will need to deal with once you’re actually in the field. Put simply: we’ll cross that methodological bridge once we get there.
In this essay I have tried to share my newly gained experiences with the digital humanities over the course of these past few weeks. I explained how I initially struggled with finding my own voice within the digital humanities and academia overall, but how I have now seem to have found a personal path that I feel comfortable walking, using my earlier gained knowledge as a journalist to my advantage. I then went on to explain in which ways traditional academia is systematically flawed, and I described the need for the decolonization of (access to) our universities, canons and curriculums. Consequently, I explained how I believe that incorporating the digital humanities into traditional academia will help not only diversify the humanities, but make the academic world a more inclusive place overall. To conclude, I elaborated on the digital research methods that I personally plan on using during my coming internship in Kampala, Uganda, while also acknowledging the fact that I cannot be too set in my ways, as I will be practicing ethnography – which means that I will be working with human beings, therefore leaving part of my research process and methods used up to serendipity.
○ Berry, Marsha. Creating with mobile media. Melbourne: Palgrave Macmillan, 2017.
○ Burdock, Anne, Johanna Drucker, Peter Lunenfeld, Todd Presner and Jeffrey Schnapp. Digital_Humanities. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2012.
○ Hunter, Andrea. “The Digital Humanities and Democracy.” Canadian Journal of Communication 40, no. 3 (2015): 407-423.
○ Mbembe, Achille. “Decolonizing the university: New directions.” Arts and Humanities in Higher Education 15, no. 1 (February 2016): 29-45.
○ Pink, Sarah. Advances in Visual Methodology. Los Angeles: SAGE Publications, 2012.
○ YouTube. “SAGE Methodspace Sarah Pink.” Accessed October 22, 2019. https://youtu.be/fcO2JlsyZvY.