Monthly Archives: July 2014

How does the digital mediates social research? Reflections on the (technical) possibilities of the digital for (post) humanities

The way humanists use digital media is a topic in which we are very much interested in the project “Being Digital”. Apparently, academics in humanities use the digital “to do their same things”, that is, they tend to use the digital for the purpose of digitization of content – this is an aspect that we could observe from the comparison between two groups of researchers doing the Digital Scholarship Workshop that we recently organized, where we had an heterogeneous group in Lisbon with people coming from different areas whereas in Coimbra we had a group mostly composed of people in humanities. The way these groups reacted to the exercises done in the workshop suggests differences in use of the digital that seem to point out to the ‘digitization of content’ kind of approach by the humanists. I suppose that’s because humanists live in a (human-centric) world where society is one thing and technical things are another one, and so they use the digital as just another media – as if a neutral vehicle of their work. A few days ago we had a session in CES where interns in several projects presented their work. Ana Rui Fonseca was one of these interns who have been working with us in the project “Being Digital”.

Ana Rui Fonseca is an undergraduate student of Anthropology in her second year at the Faculdade de Ciências e Tecnologia of the University of Coimbra who accepted the challenge of exploring the analytical possibilities of digital methods for social research – an aspect that is largely to be explored. This required a big effort from Ana Rui because of the technical difficulties related with these tools. In this respect, Ana Rui really put her hands on the technical stuff and did the ‘dirty work’ that humanists usually don’t like doing and she really explored the technical use of digital instruments. She focused her work on Gephi, a software for visualizing networks, and prepared a tutorial for the use of this tool and uploaded it on Youtube.

I had the pleasure to comment Ana Rui’s exploration of this instrument. She used her facebook network to explore the potential of this tool in terms of data visualization, which was surely a good starting point for exploring the functional potential of the tool, however, I had the feeling that other possibilities may have been explored – I commented it would be interesting to see an exploration of Gephi for “real” networks or controversies; it would be interesting to have seen her experimenting how to move from the “chaos” of networks and controversies to the “clean” version of a graphic connections between nodes – although, to be fair, engaging in such complexity would be better done in a different kind of context – a masters’ thesis, for example. I also suggested that it would be interesting to have seen her reflecting on some of the aspects that such a visual representation of networks leaves behind – Gephi seems to “reduce” interactions to the connections between dots – but what to do with all the stuff (all the qualitative, maybe phenomenological dimensions) in socio-technical controversies that doesn’t go in that representation? In case she is interested in following that thread in the future, I pointed out a book called “Lines”, by Tim Ingold – apparently nothing to do with this, but specially of interest for this purpose are his explorations about mapping and his idea that there is more in interactions/relations/networks than just the junction between the dots – I think there are a lot of ideas there that can be inspiring and particularly challenging if put in contrast with Latour’s networks and especially Venturini’s ANTA, literatures that she also explored.

The point is that I realise afterwards that myself (being somehow a humanist living in a human-centric research world – I am an anthropologist, by the way) was caught in my own human-centrism: what I could have suggested her, and this would perhaps be more interesting – now it’s too late!, would be exploring how does the digital mediates social research – I believe this would be an enormous contribution in respect to what scholars in digital humanities are doing. Virtual ethnographers are not doing this; cyborg anthropology is not doing this; digital ethnography is not doing this (“Like a traditional anthropologist, the main concern of a digital ethnographer is locating the field site and learning the language of the natives. The difference is that the anthropologist may be able to access the field site without physical travel”); people in visual anthropology and media studies are not doing this : what they are doing is the traditional stuff but through digital media – some do online ethnographies others study the relationship between people and digital technologies. All of these examples couldn’t be a better example of ‘digital humanism’: research with digital means. The tools that Ana Rui engaged with are good opportunities for exploring the potentials of the digital as mediators of social research – but she definitely could have gone further in that respect; the point is that even myself missed that point when suggesting her to look at other ways of ‘mapping’ the social – which is not irrelevant – but I was maybe entrapped in my own disciplinary human-centrism and therefore reproducing humanist concerns such as: where is the phenomenological stuff? Anthropologists are usually good in identifying all sorts of parochialism – except their own disciplinary ones, which is something I learn by working in an interdisciplinary project as this one. Humanities, for a start, is an obsolete term: what we need is maybe post-humanities explorations of the digital.