Reflections on the digital and the humanities

The saying goes “one picture is worth a thousand words.” Maybe it is the reason why I have always wondered why there were no pictures in history journals. The pictures of the Nanking Massacre or the devastation of Berlin in 1945 would speak for themselves. The saying not only goes for pictures, reiterating the words of Marin Luther King at the steps of the Lincoln
memorial is not as powerful as that old yet iconic recording. In the 21st century, the technological possibilities are not limited to the audible and visual, even the virtual has made its entrance. It is safe to conclude that the new digital technologies have transformed human society at large as well as the humanities and its research methodologies in particular. Therefore, I argue in this essay that we, as humanities scholars, need the reflective incorporation of these new technologies because it makes us aware of our knowledge formation and system.

The following essay is divided into two parts. In the first part I set out how the digital influences the humanities, based on the literature discussed in class. The question asked in this part of the essay is; how does the digital extent and change or even transform research methodologies? Whereas Ardévol (2013) argues that there are two dimensions in which the digital influences the humanities, I would like to add a third dimension or at least make it more explicit. Ardévol distinguishes two dimensions where the digital and scholarship interacts, as the digital can serve as a ‘subject of study’ and ‘methodological tool’. I would like the third dimension, namely, the publication and presentation of research is increasingly being done through the internet. The digital thus has a profound impact on the humanities as it transforms what is studied, how it is studied, and the way it is presented. Or in other words, the digital alters the knowledge system and formation of the humanities.

The digital breaks with traditional forms of knowledge creation and its technique; writing. Burdick (2012), argues that the modern humanities entail the following disciplines; “literature, philosophy, classics, rhetoric, history and studies of art, music and design”. The humanities emphasize culture as the means through which the human condition can be understood. The standard technique to reach this greater understanding of the human condition has historically been writing. However, in the digital age, new technologies influence new ways of processing, analyzing and publishing. In turn, creating new forms of understanding and, indeed, new forms of knowledge. This is why Burdick speaks of “the renewal of humanistic scholarship”, incorporating “new modes of knowledge formation enabled by networked, digital environments.” The humanities are the research area par excellence to apply the new digital approach, as it deals with ‘lived experiences’. Therefore, Burdick and others have argued for the development of the ‘Digital Humanities’, but what does this entail?

The digital is defined by the online dictionary Meriam-Webster (2019) “electronic and especially computerized technology.” Anne Burdick (2012) in her work on Digital Humanities provides a more detailed answer. Showing the historical trajectory of the digital and the humanities, she argues that the digital alters every aspect of the humanities. Whereas the digitalization of the humanities started with creating, cataloging and opening (mostly textual) archives, the digital now pushes the humanities to move beyond text-based models. This seems to be the most important aspect, as it opens up space for a multimedia approach. Incorporating video, audio and virtual material as well as, hybridized forms of “motion graphics and information visualization” (Burdick, 2012, pp. 14). Besides multimedia, the digital emphasizes multi-authored, cross-platform approaches decentering traditional areas, authorities and institutions of knowledge.

The combination of the digital and the humanities thus has produced the digital humanities. Breaking away from writing as the predominant mode of academic research it represents the human experience more adequate. The digital field with its audible, visual and virtual data, and its alternative digital presentation seems to be better suited to capture lived experience. To get back to the example of the introduction, a picture speaks more to the
imagination than numbers or words. Capturing speeches, dances and other events on audiovisual material, creates a more direct link with the subject answering the need that has occurred after the crisis in representation and the postmodern turn. Practices of co-authorship and online collaboration have the potential to give agency to the people who are studied and increases the transparency of the academic world in general. In the second part of the essay, some of the applications of the digital humanities are set forth in more detail as well as, some reflections on how the digital can be incorporated in my own research.

Reflections on the digital humanities and my own research

Now that the research area of the digital humanities is conceptualized, the applications to my own future research and in particular my thesis are outlined. In an effort to explore the possibilities of the digital humanities, its research methods and limits. In class various methods have been discussed, such as writing ethnography, narrative and discourse analysis, interviews and reading the archive, mixed methods and data visualization and lastly some ethical questions were examined. However, considering the scope of this essay only a few are discussed in more detail, before going into my own research and its relationship with the digital. In this part of the essay the following questions are answered, firstly what forms of digital research attract me and why? Then some applications to my own research are explored and lastly, some limitations to the digital humanities.

As a trained historian moving into the interdisciplinary world of African Studies, most of my research is still historically oriented. Nevertheless, one could argue that history also is an interdisciplinary field, as it draws knowledge from multiple fields, think for example of disciplines like geography, sociology, anthropology and economics. However, history is defined by a distinct research method, as most of its research is still based on the hermeneutic reading of archives. In the last decennia historical research has delved into new archives, which are not only text-based, but also encompassed photography and video material as well as large quantitative data sets. The interdisciplinary character and approach is shared with African Studies as is the turn to incorporate more digital materials and methods. Therefore, the digital methodologies examined are mostly in relation to historical research and its application.

The first group of methods discussed relate to the virtual presentation and creative writing of (ethnographic) history. The similarity between the virtual and the creative is the ‘simulation’ or ‘reproduction’ of (historic) real life experiences, not bound by the strict conventions of academic writing. This allows the audience to better understand human experiences and events. For example historical fiction whether in the form of a novel, documentary or game, displays the past its manners, social conditions and other social conditions, while incorporating fictional elements. Despite these fictional or creative elements, the audience can get a clear understanding of the past through these mediums. Another aspect
where digital methods can be used to represent the historical better than conventional forms is the virtual. The use of virtual reality to re-create historical people, buildings, cities and events opens up a whole new field to present historical research. The use of virtual and creative practices circumvents writing as the primary way through which research is received, to encapsulate or ‘describe the messiness and entanglements’ of daily life (Berry, 2012, pp. 3).

The second group of methods relates to data. With the advent of digital age ‘big data’ and the computed processing thereof has become ever more important in various research fields. I would like to highlight two related but different trends in data science and academic research in general. The first is the ‘open access’ movement or mechanism, which has the potential to democratize access as research outputs are distributed online, free of costs. The second related trend ‘open research’ which looks to create a more collaborative, transparent and efficient way of doing research. The new ways of doing research have the potential to ‘democratize’ doing research. Firstly, because it is transparent, opening up the research process, not just the output, to everyone who is interested. Second, as ‘open research’ allows for contributions by ‘citizen scientist’, it opens up space for other forms knowledge outside university. Digitally opening up of archives like for instance the ‘Surinamese slave registers’ at the National Archives of the Netherlands, facilitates further research, promotes historical awareness and raises debates inside as well as, outside the university.

So far I have discussed digital research methods that have drawn my attention during the course. Now I would like to dive further into my own research and examine how the digital can be incorporated in my own research. As I asserted in the introduction, the digital has transformed society at large as well as the humanities. However, in my own research I would like to examine the digital as an area of research. The use of mobile technology and mobile apps can play crucial roles for agricultural practices as it provides “farmers knowledge and information on agriculture technologies, best practices, markets price trends and weather conditions.” (Science Agenda for Africa, 2014) In addition, it can it can help farmers to unite and increase their bargaining position within the value chain as connections are made easy through mobile telephones. This bottom-up approach is also reflected in the fact that the information and communication can be delivered via voice technology and local languages.

In the academic literature the impact of mobile technology on agriculture is presented as a huge success. Large international companies like Vodafone have created apps such as M-Pesa to exploit the newly found possibilities. In an effort to examine the impact of mobile technology on agriculture in Ghana, I would like to combine conventional research with interviews. The multimodality in this research then would be the merger between writing and interviews, as I want to explore how the impact of mobile technology in Ghana is perceived by local communities. These transitions of local communities are embedded in global trends and will be explored through semi-structured audio and/or visual interviews. The outcomes of the research will be presented in two ways. Firstly, in the more or less conventional form of a research paper, and secondly, the interviews will be used to create a podcast or short documentary. I opt for the combination of both a research paper and an alternative presentation, in an effort to both uphold academic standards, while at the same time reaching a bigger audience outside of university.

The digital thus has huge potential to renew the humanities. It potential lies in the new methodological tools, subject of study as well as its alternative ways of publishing. New technologies have enabled researchers inside and outside the university to re-envison what the humanities are and better grasp human ‘lived’ experiences, through audio, visual, virtual and
digitalized methods and networks. Despite its huge potential there are also limitations. The attempts to move beyond writing as the primary form of academic research are admirable, and the results are impressive think for instance of digitalization of archives and data mining. Nevertheless, the digital requires a new kind of literacy. The creation and reading of audiovisual material, infographics and large data sets demand entirely new skills. The new digital illiteracy needs to be addressed, if not adequately addressed the digital humanities can never reach its full potential.

In this essay I have argued for the reflexive incorporation of new technologies.Reflexive, as we as humanities scholars need to educate the next generation of digital scholars and provide them with the right tools and thought to surpass writing as the dominant modus in academia. The application of the digital in the humanities has opened up space for audio, visual, audiovisual, virtual and other abstracted visualizations of knowledge. Despite requiring a new form of literacy, it can capture and imagine the human ‘lived experience’ better. What I have called the democratization potential, incorporating forms of knowledge existing outside of university, can be regarded the most valuable aspect of the digital humanities. For far too long the university has been able to present itself as the sole creator of legitimate knowledge. Now it is time to create a more transparent and accessible knowledge system through the digital humanities.


Ardévol, Elisendra, ‘Virtual/visual Ethnography: Methodological Crossroads at the Intersection of Visual and Internet Research’, in: Sarah Pink (eds), Advances in Visual Methods (2012).

Berry, Marsha, Creating with Mobile Media 2017.

Burdick, Anne (eds.), Digital Humanities, 2012.

Forum for Agricultural Research in Africa (FARA), Science Agenda for Agriculture in Africa: Connecting Science to Transform agriculture in Africa, 2014.