Drawing lines: Digital Humanities and Web Science

One of the discussions I had at InterFace concerned the relationship between Digital Humanities and Web Science. My own opinion is that some things are DH; some are WebSci; some are both; others are neither 😉

Intriguingly, when I remarked upon my surprise about the ‘digital humanities’ positioning of InterFace to a colleague, her response was “well it isn’t Web Science is it?” (This seemed to imply to me that if you are working in an area where technology and the humanities overlap, it must be WebSci or DH! I suspect I misunderstood…)

So: her stance as I understand it is that Digital Humanities can be described as the application of technology in the humanities, while WebSci can be seen as the application of methods from the humanities (and social sciences) to technology.

I’m probably taking the comparison too seriously, but let’s go with this anyway: although there’s an extent to which its true, I think it short changes WebSci in some ways. (I don’t know enough about DH to have an opinion on that half of the equation!)

Web Science does involve use of tools from the humanities and social sciences — but also from Network Science, Computer Science, Biology, AI and plenty of other areas (is Art part of the humanities? Is Politics?). Besides, WebSci — the study of the Web as an ongoing process, and its impact on society, and vice versa — is about the use of tools from those disciplines in the context of the web (and internet), not ‘technology’ in general.

Of course, drawing lines around disciplines can be a bit of a false start anyway: one person may self-describe as a Web Scientist but be perceived by others as a Sociologist or a Digital Humanist. It all depends on context, and it’s all shades of grey.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Cheers for the thoughtful post. I agree that there’s a lot of space of interaction between Digital Humanities and Web Science. I also wonder if there are some interesting structural differences.

    I’m increasingly of the view that there is a distinct difference between ‘Digital Humanists’ and the ‘Digital Humanities’. The former I certainly believe in and in fact consider myself to be one: people with some tech and some humanistic knowledge. On the other hand I’m really not sure there is either a valuable, or even meaningful thing called ‘The Digital Humanities’. Humanities questions are just Humanities questions and typically they require a range of different thinking applied to them which may or may not best be done with a computer. It seems as ridiculous to advocate a ‘solely digital’ methodology as to advocate a solely non-digital one, and if the distinction is not clear then, as Mel put it well, you don’t real have a sensible classification. What’s more, I definitely don’t think that lots of digital humanists working together makes for better humanities, digital or otherwise. You just get bad humanities and bad technology 😉 A much better model in my view is a collaboration between digital humanists, humanists and technologists in which there is a much greater chance of pushing the boundaries. That’s what InterFace is all about.

    Of course there is one field of ‘DH’ which is not concerned with humanities questions per se – the study of how humanists use technology. This is the work that Claire Warwick talked about for instance. Arguably however, that would be better categorised as either Web Science (where applicable) or Human-Computer-Interaction. Which leads to a slightly surprising paradox, for in contrast to DH, where it seems there should be Digital Humanists but no Digital Humanities, there seems to be a clearly defined Web Science but most of its best know practitioners (Barabasi, Kleinberg, and so on) wouldn’t consider themselves to be ‘Web Scientists’. Is there some kind of take-home lesson here? I’m not sure 🙂

    Reply

  2. @Leifuss, who says “it seems there should be Digital Humanists but no Digital Humanities, there seems to be a clearly defined Web Science but most of its best know practitioners (Barabasi, Kleinberg, and so on) wouldn’t consider themselves to be ‘Web Scientists’. Is there some kind of take-home lesson here?”

    It may depend how closely you look. I don’t see Web Science as particularly well-defined–maybe it looks that way from the outside though.

    Reply

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