“Digital History” Can Never Be New

If you claim computational approaches to history (“digital history”) lets historians ask new types of questions, or that they offer new historical approaches to answering or exploring old questions, you are wrong. You’re not actually wrong, but you are institutionally wrong, which is maybe worse.

This is a problem, because rhetoric from practitioners (including me) is that we can bring some “new” to the table, and when we don’t, we’re called out for not doing so. The exchange might (but probably won’t) go like this:

Digital Historian: And this graph explains how velociraptors were of utmost importance to Victorian sensibilities.

Historian in Audience: But how is this telling us anything we haven’t already heard before? Didn’t John Hammond already make the same claim?

DH: That’s true, he did. One thing the graph shows, though, is that velicoraptors in general tend to play much more unimportant roles across hundreds of years, which lends support to the Victorian thesis.

HiA: Yes, but the generalized argument doesn’t account for cultural differences across those times, so doesn’t meaningfully contribute to this (or any other) historical conversation.

New Questions

History (like any discipline) is made of people, and those people have Ideas about what does or doesn’t count as history (well, historiography, but that’s a long word so let’s ignore it). If you ask a new type of question or use a new approach, that new thing probably doesn’t fit historians’ Ideas about proper history.

Take culturomics. They make claims like this:

The age of peak celebrity has been consistent over time: about 75 years after birth. But the other parameters have been changing. Fame comes sooner and rises faster. Between the early 19th century and the mid-20th century, the age of initial celebrity declined from 43 to 29 years, and the doubling time fell from 8.1 to 3.3 years.

Historians saw those claims and asked “so what”? It’s not interesting or relevant according to the things historians usually consider interesting or relevant, and it’s problematic in ways historians find things problematic. For example, it ignores cultural differences, does not speak to actual human experiences, and has nothing of use to say about a particular historical moment.

It’s true. Culturomics-style questions do not fit well within a humanities paradigm (incommensurable, anyone?). By the standard measuring stick of what makes a good history project, culturomics does not measure up. A new type of question requires a new measuring stick; in this case, I think a good one for culturomics-style approaches is the extent to which they bridge individual experiences with large-scale social phenomena, or how well they are able to reconcile statistical social regularities with free or contingent choice.

The point, though, is a culturomics presentation would fit few of the boxes expected at a history conference, and so would be considered a failure. Rightly so, too—it’s a bad history presentation. But what culturomics is successfully doing is asking new types of questions, whether or not historians find them legitimate or interesting. Is it good culturomics?

To put too fine a point on it, since history is often a question-driven discipline, new types of questions that are too different from previous types are no longer legitimately within the discipline of history, even if they are intrinsically about human history and do not fit in any other discipline.

What’s more, new types of questions may appear simplistic by historian’s standards, because they fail at fulfilling even the most basic criteria usually measuring historical worth. It’s worth keeping in mind that, to most of the rest of the world, our historical work often fails at meeting their criteria for worth.

New Approaches

New approaches to old questions share a similar fate, but for different reasons. That is, if they are novel, they are not interesting, and if they are interesting, they are not novel.

Traditional historical questions are, let’s face it, not particularly new. Tautologically. Some old questions in my field are: what role did now-silent voices play in constructing knowledge-making instruments in 17th century astronomy? How did scholarship become institutionalized in the 18th century? Why was Isaac Newton so annoying?

My own research is an attempt to provide a broader view of those topics (at least, the first two) using computational means. Since my topical interest has a rich tradition among historians, it’s unlikely any of my historically-focused claims (for example, that scholarly institutions were built to replace the really complicated and precarious role people played in coordinating social networks) will be without precedent.

After decades, or even centuries, of historical work in this area, there will always be examples of historians already having made my claims. My contribution is the bolstering of a particular viewpoint, the expansion of its applicability, the reframing of a discussion. Ultimately, maybe, I convince the world that certain social network conditions play an important role in allowing scholarly activity to be much more successful at its intended goals. My contribution is not, however, a claim that is wholly without precedent.

But this is a problem, since DH rhetoric, even by practitioners, can understandably lead people to expect such novelty. Historians in particular are very good at fitting old patterns to new evidence. It’s what we’re trained to do.

Any historical claim (to an acceptable question within the historical paradigm) can easily be countered with “but we already knew that”. Either the question’s been around long enough that every plausible claim has been covered, or the new evidence or theory is similar enough to something pre-existing that it can be taken as precedent.

The most masterful recent discussion of this topic was Matthew Lincoln’s Confabulation in the humanities, where he shows how easy it is to make up evidence and get historians to agree that they already knew it was true.

To put too fine a point on it, new approaches to old historical questions are destined to produce results which conform to old approaches; or if they don’t, it’s easy enough to stretch the old & new theories together until they fit. New approaches to old questions will fail at producing completely surprising results; this is a bad standard for historical projects. If a novel methodology were to create truly unrecognizable results, it is unlikely those results would be recognized as “good history” within the current paradigm. That is, historians would struggle to care.

What Is This Beast?

What is this beast we call digital history? Boundary-drawing is a tried-and-true tradition in the humanities, digital or otherwise. It’s theoretically kind of stupid but practically incredibly important, since funding decisions, tenure cases, and similar career-altering forces are at play. If digital history is a type of history, it’s fundable as such, tenurable as such; if it isn’t, it ain’t. What’s more, if what culturomics researchers are doing are also history, their already-well-funded machine can start taking slices of the sad NEH pie.

Artist's rendition of sad NEH pie. [via]
Artist’s rendition of sad NEH pie. [via]
So “what counts?” is unfortunately important to answer.

This discussion around what is “legitimate history research” is really important, but I’d like to table it for now, because it’s so often conflated with the discussion of what is “legitimate research” sans history. The former question easily overshadows the latter, since academics are mostly just schlubs trying to make a living.

For the last century or so, history and philosophy of science have been smooshed together in departments and conferences. It’s caused a lot of concern. Does history of science need philosophy of science? Does philosophy of science need history of science? What does it mean to combine the two? Is what comes out of the middle even useful?

Weirdly, the question sometimes comes down to “does history and philosophy of science even exist?”. It’s weird because people identify with that combined title, so I published a citation analysis in Erkenntnis a few years back that basically showed that, indeed, there is an area between the two communities, and indeed those people describe themselves as doing HPS, whatever that means to them.

Look! Right in the middle there, it's history and philosophy of science.
Look! Right in the middle there, it’s history and philosophy of science.

I bring this up because digital history, as many of us practice it, leaves us floating somewhere between public engagement, social science, and history. Culturomics occupies a similar interstitial space, though inching closer to social physics and complex systems.

From this vantage point, we have a couple of options. We can say digital history is just history from a slightly different angle, and try to be evaluated by standard historical measuring sticks—which would make our work easily criticized as not particularly novel. Or we can say digital history is something new, occupying that in-between space—which could render the work unrecognizable to our usual communities.

The either/or proposition is, of course, ludicrous. The best work being done now skirts the line, offering something just novel enough to be surprising, but not so out of traditional historical bounds as to be grouped with culturomics. But I think we need to more deliberate and organized in this practice, lest we want to be like History and Philosophy of Science, still dealing with basic questions of legitimacy fifty years down the line.

In the short term, this probably means trying not just to avoid the rhetoric of newness, but to actively curtail it. In the long term, it may mean allying with like-minded historians, social scientists, statistical physicists, and complexity scientists to build a new framework of legitimacy that recognizes the forms of knowledge we produce which don’t always align with historiographic standards. As Cassidy Sugimoto and I recently wrote, this often comes with journals, societies, and disciplinary realignment.

The least we can do is steer away from a novelty rhetoric, since what is novel often isn’t history, and what is history often isn’t novel.

“Branding” – An Addendum

After writing this post, I read Amardeep Singh’s call to, among other things, avoid branding:

Here’s a way of thinking that might get us past this muddle (and I think I agree with the authors that the hype around DH is a mistake): let’s stop branding our scholarship. We don’t need Next Big Things and we don’t need Academic Superstars, whether they are DH Superstars or Theory Superstars. What we do need is to find more democratic and inclusive ways of thinking about the value of scholarship and scholarly communities.

This is relevant here, and good, but tough to reconcile with the earlier post. In an ideal world, without disciplinary brandings, we can all try to be welcoming of works on their own merits, without relying our preconceived disciplinary criteria. In the present condition, though, it’s tough to see such an environment forming. In that context, maybe a unified digital history “brand” is the best way to stay afloat. This would build barriers against whatever new thing comes along next, though, so it’s a tough question.

Not Enough Perspectives, Pt. 1

Right now DH is all texts, but not enough perspectives. –Andrew Piper

Summary: Digital Humanities suffers from a lack of perspectives in two ways: we need to focus more on the perspectives of those who interact with the cultural objects we study, and we need more outside academic perspectives. In Part 1, I cover Russian Formalism, questions of validity, and what perspective we bring to our studies. In Part 2, 1 I call for pulling inspiration from even more disciplines, and for the adoption and exploration of three new-to-DH concepts: Appreciability, Agreement, and Appropriateness. These three terms will help tease apart competing notions of validity.


Let’s begin with the century-old Russian Formalism, because why not? 2 Syuzhet, in that context, is juxtaposed against fabula. Syuzhet is a story’s order, structure, or narrative framework, whereas fabula is the underlying fictional reality of the world. Fabula is the story the author wants to get across, and syuzhet is the way she decides to tell it.

It turns out elements of Russian Formalism are resurfacing across the digital humanities, enough so that there’s an upcoming Stanford workshop on DH & Russian Formalism, and even I co-authored a piece that draws on work of Russian formalists. Syuzhet itself has a new meaning in the context of digital humanities: it’s a piece of code that chews books and spits out plot structures.

You may have noticed a fascinating discussion developing recently on statistical analysis of plot arcs in novels using sentiment analysis. A lot of buzz especially has revolved around Matt Jockers and Annie Swafford, and the discussion has bled into larger academia and inspired 246 (and counting) comments on reddit. Eileen Clancy has written a two-part broad link summary (I & II).

From Jockers' first post describing his method of deriving plot structure from running sentiment analysis on novels.
From Jockers’ first post describing his method of deriving plot structure from running sentiment analysis on novels.

The idea of deriving plot arcs from sentiment analysis has proven controversial on a number of fronts, and I encourage those interested to read through the links to learn more. The discussion I’ll point to here centers around “validity“, a word being used differently by different voices in the conversation. These include:

  • Do sentiment analysis algorithms agree with one another enough to be considered valid?
  • Do sentiment analysis results agree with humans performing the same task enough to be considered valid?
  • Is Jockers’ instantiation of aggregate sentiment analysis validly measuring anything besides random fluctuations?
  • Is aggregate sentiment analysis, by human or machine, a valid method for revealing plot arcs?
  • If aggregate sentiment analysis finds common but distinct patterns and they don’t seem to map onto plot arcs, can they still be valid measurements of anything at all?
  • Can a subjective concept, whether measured by people or machines, actually be considered invalid or valid?

The list goes on. I contributed to a Twitter discussion on the topic a few weeks back. Most recently, Andrew Piper wrote a blog post around validity in this discussion.

Hermeneutics of DH, from Piper's blog.
Hermeneutics of DH, from Piper’s blog.

In this particular iteration of the discussion, validity implies a connection between the algorithm’s results and some interpretive consensus among experts. Piper points out that consensus doesn’t yet exist, because:

We have the novel data, but not the reader data. Right now DH is all texts, but not enough perspectives.

And he’s right. So far, DH seems to focus its scaling up efforts on the written word, rather than the read word.

This doesn’t mean we’ve ignored studying large-scale reception. In fact, I’m about to argue that reception is built into our large corpora text analyses, even though it wasn’t by design. To do so, I’ll discuss the tension between studying what gets written and what gets read through distant reading.

The Great Unread

The Great Unread is a phrase popularized by Franco Moretti 3 to indicate the lost literary canon. In his own words:

[…] the “lost best-sellers” of Victorian Britain: idiosyncratic works, whose staggering short-term success (and long-term failure) requires an explanation in their own terms.

The phrase has since become synonymous with large text databases like Google Books or HathiTrust, and is used in concert with distant reading to set digital literary history apart from its analog counterpart. Distant reading The Great Unread, it’s argued,

significantly increase[s] the researcher’s ability to discuss aspects of influence and the development of intellectual movements across a broader swath of the literary landscape. –Tangherlini & Leonard

Which is awesome. As I understand it, literary history, like history in general, suffers from an exemplar problem. Researchers take a few famous (canonical) books, assume they’re a decent (albeit shining) example of their literary place and period, and then make claims about culture, art, and so forth based on those novels which are available.

Matthew Lincoln raised this point the other day, as did Matthew Wilkins in his recent article on DH in the study of literature and culture. Essentially, both distant- and close-readers make part-to-whole generalized inferences, but the process of distant reading forces those generalizations to become formal and explicit. And hopefully, by looking at The Great Unread (the tens of thousands of books that never made it into the canon), claims about culture can better represent the nuanced literary world of the past.

Franco Moretti's Distant Reading.
Franco Moretti’s Distant Reading.

But this is weird. Without exemplars, what the heck are we studying? This isn’t a representation of what’s stood the test of time—that’s the canon we know and love. It’s also not a representation of what was popular back then (well, it sort of was, but more on that shortly), because we don’t know anything about circulation numbers. Most of these Google-scanned books surely never caught the public eye, and many of the now-canonical pieces of literature may not have been popular at the time.

It turns out we kinda suck at figuring out readership statistics, or even at figuring out what was popular at any given time, unless we know what we’re looking for. A folklorist friend of mine has called this the Sophus Bauditz problem. An expert in 19th century Danish culture, my friend one day stumbled across a set of nicely-bound books written by Sophus Bauditz. They were in his era of expertise, but he’d never heard of these books. “Must have been some small print run”, he thought to himself, before doing some research and discovering copies of these books he’d never heard of were everywhere in private collections. They were popular books for the emerging middle class, and sold an order of magnitude more copies than most books of the era; they’d just never made it into the canon. In another century, 50 Shades of Grey will likely suffer the same fate.


In this light, I find The Great Unread to be a weird term.  The Forgotten Read, maybe, to refer to those books which people actually did read but were never canonized, and The Great Tsundoku 4 for those books which were published, lasted to the present, and became digitized, but for which we have no idea whether anyone bothered to read them. The former would likely be more useful in understanding reception, cultural zeitgeist, etc.; the latter might find better use in understanding writing culture and perhaps authorial influence (by seeing whose styles the most other authors copy).

Tsundoku is Japanese for the ever-increasing pile of unread books that have been purchased and added to the queue. Illustrated by Reddit user Wemedge’s 12-year-old daughter.

In the present data-rich world we live in, we can still only grasp at circulation and readership numbers. Library circulation provides some clues, as does the number, size, and sales of print editions. It’s not perfect, of course, though it might be useful in separating zeitgeist from actual readership numbers.

Mathematician Jordan Ellenberg recently coined the tongue-in-cheek Hawking Index, because Stephen Hawking’s books are frequently purchased but rarely read, to measure just that. In his Wall Street Journal article, Ellenberg looked at popular books sold on Amazon Kindle to see where people tended to socially highlight their favorite passages. Highlights from Kahneman’s “Thinking Fast and Slow”, Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time”, and Picketty’s “Capital in the Twenty-First Century” all tended to cluster in the first few pages of the books, suggesting people simply stopped reading once they got a few chapters in.

Kindle and other ebooks certainly complicate matters. It’s been claimed that one reason behind 50 Shades of Grey‘s success was the fact that people could purchase and read it discreetly, digitally, without worry about embarrassment. Digital sales outnumbered print sales for some time into its popularity. As Dan Cohen and Jennifer Howard pointed out, it’s remarkably difficult to understand the ebook market, and the market is quite different among different constituencies. Ebook sales accounted for 23% of the book market this year, yet 50% of romance books are sold digitally.

And let’s not even get into readership statistics for novels that are out copyright, or sold used, or illegally attained: they’re pretty much impossible to count. Consider It’s a Wonderful Life (yes, the 1946 Christmas movie). A clerical accident pushed the movie into the public domain (sort of) in 1974. It had never really been popular before then, but once TV stations could play it without paying royalties, and VHS companies could legally produce and sell copies for free, the movie shot to popularity. Importantly, it shot to popularity in a way that was impossible to see on official license reports, but which Google ngrams reveals quite clearly.

Google ngram count of "It's a Wonderful Life", showing its rise to popularity after the copyright lapse.
Google ngram count of It’s a Wonderful Life, showing its rise to popularity after the 1974 copyright lapse.

This ngram visualization does reveal one good use for The Great Tsundoku, and that’s to use what authors are writing about as finger on the pulse of what people care to write about. This can also be used to track things like linguistic influence. It’s likely no coincidence, for example, that American searches for the word “folks” doubled during the first month’s of President Obama’s bid for the White House in 2007. 5

American searches for the word "folks" during Obama's first presidential bid.
American searches for the word “folks” during Obama’s first presidential bid.

Matthew Jockers has picked up on this capability of The Great Tsundoku for literary history in his analyses of 19th century literature. He compares books by various similar features, and uses that in a discussion of literary influence. Obviously the causal chain is a bit muddled in these cases, culture being ouroboric as it is, and containing a great deal more influencing factors than published books, but it’s a good set of first steps.

But this brings us back to the question of The Great Tsundoku vs. The Forgotten Read, or, what are we learning about when we distant read giant messy corpora like Google Books? This is by no means a novel question. Ted Underwood, Matt Jockers, Ben Schmidt, and I had an ongoing discussion on corpus representativeness a few years back, and it’s been continuously pointed to by corpus linguists 6 and literary historians for some time.

Surely there’s some appreciable difference when analyzing what’s often read versus what’s written?

Surprise! It’s not so simple. Ted Underwood points out:

we could certainly measure “what was printed,” by including one record for every volume in a consortium of libraries like HathiTrust. If we do that, a frequently-reprinted work like Robinson Crusoe will carry about a hundred times more weight than a novel printed only once.

He continues

if we’re troubled by the difference between “what was written” and “what was read,” we can simply create two different collections — one limited to first editions, the other including reprints and duplicate copies. Neither collection is going to be a perfect mirror of print culture. Counting the volumes of a novel preserved in libraries is not the same thing as counting the number of its readers. But comparing these collections should nevertheless tell us whether the issue of popularity makes much difference for a given research question.

While his claim skirts the sorts of issues raised by Ellenberg’s Hawking Index, it does present a very reasonable natural experiment: if you ask the same question of three databases (1. The entire messy, reprint-ridden corpus; 2. Single editions of The Forgotten Read, those books which were popular whether canonized or not; 3. The entire Great Tsundoku, everything that was printed at least once, regardless of whether it was read), what will you find?

Underwood performed 2/3rds of this experiment, comparing The Forgotten Read against the entire HathiTrust corpus on an analysis of the emergence of literary diction. He found that the trend results across both were remarkably similar.

Underwood's analysis of all HathiTrust prose (left), vs. The Forgotten Read (right).
Underwood’s analysis of all HathiTrust prose (47,549 volumes, left), vs. The Forgotten Read (773 volumes, right).

Clearly they’re not precisely the same, but the fact that their trends are so similar is suggestive that the HathiTrust corpus at least shares some traits with The Forgotten Read. The jury is out on the extent of those shared traits, or whether it shares as much with The Great Tsundoku.

The cause of the similarities between historically popular books and books that made it into HathiTrust should be apparent: 7 historically popular books were more frequently reprinted and thus, eventually, more editions made it into the HathiTrust corpus. Also, as Allen Riddell showed, it’s likely that fewer than 60% of published prose from that period have been scanned, and novels with multiple editions are more likely to appear in the HathiTrust corpus.

This wasn’t actually what I was expecting. I figured the HathiTrust corpus would track more closely to what’s written than to what’s read—and we need more experiments to confirm that’s not the case. But as it stands now, we may actually expect these corpora to reflect The Forgotten Read, a continuously evolving measurement of readership and popularity. 8

Lastly, we can’t assume that greater popularity results in larger print runs in every case, or that those larger print runs would be preserved. Ephemera such as zines and comics, digital works produced in the 1980s, and brittle books printed on acidic paper in the 19th century all have their own increased likelihoods of vanishing. So too does work written by minorities, by the subjected, by the conquered.

The Great Unreads

There are, then, quite a few Great Unreads. The Great Tsundoku was coined with tongue planted firmly in-cheek, but we do need a way of talking about the many varieties of Great Unreads, which include but aren’t limited to:

  • Everything ever written or published, along with size of print run, number of editions, etc. (Presumably Moretti’s The Great Unread.)
  • The set of writings which by historical accident ended up digitized.
  • The set of writings which by historical accident ended up digitized, cleaned up with duplicates removed, multiple editions connected and encoded, etc. (The Great Tsundoku.)
  • The set of writings which by historical accident ended up digitized, adjusted for disparities in literacy, class, document preservation, etc. (What we might see if history hadn’t stifled so many voices.)
  • The set of things read proportional to what everyone actually read. (The Forgotten Read.)
  • The set of things read proportional to what everyone actually read, adjusted for disparities in literacy, class, etc.
  • The set of writings adjusted proportionally by their influence, such that highly influential writings are over-represented, no matter how often they’re actually read. (This will look different over time; in today’s context this would be closest to The Canon. Historically it might track closer to a Zeitgeist.)
  • The set of writings which attained mass popularity but little readership and, perhaps, little influence. (Ellenberg’s Hawking-Index.)

And these are all confounded by hazy definitions of publication; slowly changing publication culture; geographic, cultural, or other differences which influence what is being written and read; and so forth.

The important point is that reading at scale is not clear-cut. This isn’t a neglected topic, but nor have we laid much groundwork for formal, shared notions of “corpus”, “collection”, “sample”, and so forth in the realm of large-scale cultural analysis. We need to, if we want to get into serious discussions of validity. Valid with respect to what?

This concludes Part 1. Part 2 will get into the finer questions of validity, surrounding syuzhet and similar projects, and will introduce three new terms (Appreciability, Agreement, and Appropriateness) to approach validity in a more humanities-centric fashion.


  1. Coming in a few weeks because we just received our proofs for The Historian’s Macroscope and I need to divert attention there before finishing this.
  2. And anyway I don’t need to explain myself to you, okay? This post begins where it begins. Syuzhet.
  3. The phrase was originally coined by Margaret Cohen.
  4. (see illustration below)
  5. COCA and other corpus tools show the same trend.
  6. Heather Froelich always has good commentary on this matter.
  7. Although I may be reading this as a just-so story, as Matthew Lincoln pointed out.
  8. This is a huge oversimplification. I’m avoiding getting into regional, class, racial, etc. differences, because popularity obviously isn’t universal. We can also argue endlessly about representativeness, e.g. whether the fact that men published more frequently than women should result in a corpus that includes more male-authored works than female-authored, or whether we ought to balance those scales.

Do historians need scientists?

[edit: I’m realizing I didn’t make it clear in this post that I’m aware many historians consider themselves scientists, and that there’s plenty of scientific historical archaeology and anthropology. That’s exactly what I’m advocating there be more of, and more varied.]

Short Answer: Yes.

Less Snarky Answer: Historians need to be flexible to fresh methods, fresh perspectives, and fresh blood. Maybe not that last one, I guess, as it might invite vampires.Okay, I suppose this answer wasn’t actually less snarky.

Long Answer

The long answer is that historians don’t necessarily need scientists, but that we do need fresh scientific methods. Perhaps as an accident of our association with the ill-defined “humanities”, or as a result of our being placed in an entirely different culture (see: C.P. Snow), most historians seem fairly content with methods rooted in thinking about text and other archival evidence. This isn’t true of all historians, of course – there are economic historians who use statistics, historians of science who recreate old scientific experiments, classical historians who augment their research with archaeological findings, archival historians who use advanced ink analysis,  and so forth. But it wouldn’t be stretching the truth to say that, for the most part, historiography is the practice of thinking cleverly about words to make more words.

I’ll argue here that our reliance on traditional methods (or maybe more accurately, our odd habit of rarely discussing method) is crippling historiography, and is making it increasingly likely that the most interesting and innovative historical work will come from non-historians. Sometimes these studies are ill-informed, especially when the authors decide not to collaborate with historians who know the subject, but to claim that a few ignorant claims about history negate the impact of these new insights is an exercise in pedantry.

In defending the humanities, we like to say that scientists and technologists with liberal arts backgrounds are more well-rounded, better citizens of the world, more able to contextualize their work. Non-humanists benefit from a liberal arts education in pretty much all the ways that are impossible to quantify (and thus, extremely difficult to defend against budget cuts). We argue this in the interest of rounding a person’s knowledge, to make them aware of their past, of their place in a society with staggering power imbalances and systemic biases.

Humanities departments should take a page from their own books. Sure, a few general ed requirements force some basic science and math… but I got an undergraduate history degree in a nice university, and I’m well aware how little STEM I actually needed to get through it. Our departments are just as guilty of narrowness as those of our STEM colleagues, and often because of it, we rely on applied mathematicians, statistical physicists, chemists, or computer scientists to do our innovative work for (or sometimes, thankfully, with) us.

Of course, there’s still lots of innovative work to be done from a textual perspective. I’m not downplaying that. Not everyone needs to use crazy physics/chemistry/computer science/etc. methods. But there’s a lot of low hanging fruit at the intersection of historiography and the natural sciences, and we’re not doing a great job of plucking it.

The story below is illustrative.


Last night, Blaise Agüera y Arcas presented his research on Gutenberg to a packed house at our rare books library. He’s responsible for a lot of the cool things that have come out of Microsoft in the last few years, and just got a job at Google, where presumably he will continue to make cool things. Blaise has degrees in physics and applied mathematics. And, a decade ago, Blaise and historian/librarian Paul Needham sent ripples through the History of the Book community by showing that Gutenberg’s press did not work at all the way people expected.

It was generally assumed that Gutenberg employed a method called punchcutting in order to create a standard font. A letter carved into a metal rod (a “punch”) would be driven into a softer metal (a “matrix”) in order to create a mold. The mold would be filled with liquid metal which hardened to form a small block of a single letter (a “type”), which would then be loaded onto the press next to other letters, inked, and then impressed onto a page. Because the mold was metal, many duplicate “types” could be made of the same letter, thus allowing many uses of the same letter to appear identical on a single pressed page.

Punch matrix system. [via]
Punch matrix system. [via]
Type to be pressed. [via]
Type to be pressed. [via]
This process is what allowed all the duplicate letters to appear identical in Gutenberg’s published books. Except, of course, careful historians of early print noticed that letters weren’t, in fact, identical. In the 1980s, Paul Needham and a colleague attempted to produce an inventory of all the different versions of letters Gutenberg used, but they stopped after frequently finding 10 or more obviously distinct versions of the same letter.

Needham's inventory of Gutenberg type. [via]
Needham’s inventory of Gutenberg type. [via]
This was perplexing, but the subject was bracketed away for a while, until Blaise Agüera y Arcas came to Princeton and decided to work with Needham on the problem. Using extremely high-resolution imagining techniques, Blaise noted that there were in fact hundreds of versions of every letter. Not only that, there were actually variations and regularities in the smaller elements that made up letters. For example, an “n” was formed by two adjacent vertical lines, but occasionally the two vertical lines seem to have flipped places entirely. The extremely basic letter “i” itself had many variations, but within those variations, many odd self-similarities.

Variations in the letter "i" in Gutenberg's type. [via]
Variations in the letter “i” in Gutenberg’s type. [via]
Historians had, until this analysis, assumed most letter variations were due to wear of the type blocks. This analysis blew that hypothesis out of the water. These “i”s were clearly not all made in the same mold; but then, how had they been made? To answer this, they looked even closer at the individual letters.


Close up of Gutenberg letters, with light shining through page. [via]
Close up of Gutenberg letters, with light shining through page. [via]
It’s difficult to see at first glance, but they found something a bit surprising. The letters appeared to be formed of overlapping smaller parts: a vertical line, a diagonal box, and so forth. The below figure shows a good example of this. The glyphs on the bottom have have a stem dipping below the bottom horizontal line, while the glyphs at the top do not.

Abbreviation of 'per'. [via]
Abbreviation of ‘per’. [via]
The conclusion Needham and Agüera y Arcas drew, eventually, was that the punchcutting method must not have been used for Gutenberg’s early material. Instead, a set of carved “strokes” were pushed into hard sand or soft clay, configured such that the strokes would align to form various letters, not unlike the formation of cuneiform. This mold would then be used to cast letters, creating the blocks we recognize from movable type. The catch is that this soft clay could only cast letters a few times before it became unusable and would need to be recreated. As Gutenberg needed multiple instances of individual letters per page, many of those letters would be cast from slightly different soft molds.

Low-Hanging Fruit

At the end of his talk, Blaise made an offhand comment: how is it that historians/bibliographers/librarians have been looking at these Gutenbergs for so long, discussing the triumph of their identical characters, and not noticed that the characters are anything but uniform? Or, of those who had noticed it, why hadn’t they raised any red flags?

The insights they produced weren’t staggering feats of technology. He used a nice camera, a light shining through the pages of an old manuscript, and a few simple image recognition and clustering algorithms. The clustering part could even have been done by hand, and actually had been, by Paul Needham. And yes, it’s true, everything is obvious in hindsight, but there were a lot of eyes on these bibles, and odds are if some of them had been historians who were trained in these techniques, this insight could have come sooner. Every year students do final projects and theses and dissertations, but what percent of those use techniques from outside historiography?

In short, there’s a lot of very basic assumptions we make about the past that could probably be updated significantly if we had the right skillset, or knew how to collaborate with those who did. I think people like William Newman, who performs Newton’s alchemical experiments, is on the right track. As is Shawn Graham, who reanimates the trade networks of ancient Rome using agent-based simulations, or Devon Elliott, who creates computational and physical models of objects from the history of stage magic. Elliott’s models have shown that certain magic tricks couldn’t possibly have worked as they were described to.

The challenge is how to encourage this willingness to reach outside traditional historiographic methods to learn about the past. Changing curricula to be more flexible is one way, but that is a slow and institutionally difficult process. Perhaps faculty could assign group projects to students taking their gen-ed history courses, encouraging disciplinary mixes and non-traditional methods. It’s an open question, and not an easy one, but it’s one we need to tackle.

Appreciability & Experimental Digital Humanities

Operationalize: to express or define (something) in terms of the operations used to determine or prove it.

Precision deceives. Quantification projects an illusion of certainty and solidity no matter the provenance of the underlying data. It is a black box, through which uncertain estimations become sterile observations. The process involves several steps: a cookie cutter to make sure the data are all shaped the same way, an equation to aggregate the inherently unique, a visualization to display exact values from a process that was anything but.

In this post, I suggest that Moretti’s discussion of operationalization leaves out an integral discussion on precision, and I introduce a new term, appreciability, as a constraint on both accuracy and precision in the humanities. This conceptual constraint paves the way for an experimental digital humanities.

Operationalizing and the Natural Sciences

An operationalization is the use of definition and measurement to create meaningful data. It is an incredibly important aspect of quantitative research, and it has served the western world well for at leas 400 years. Franco Moretti recently published a LitLab Pamphlet and a nearly identical article in the New Left Review about operationalization, focusing on how it can bridge theory and text in literary theory. Interestingly, his description blurs the line between the operationalization of his variables (what shape he makes the cookie cutters that he takes to his text) and the operationalization of his theories (how the variables interact to form a proxy for his theory).

Moretti’s account anchors the practice in its scientific origin, citing primarily physicists and historians of physics. This is a deft move, but an unexpected one in a recent DH environment which attempts to distance itself from a narrative of humanists just playing with scientists’ toys. Johanna Drucker, for example, commented on such practices:

[H]umanists have adopted many applications […] that were developed in other disciplines. But, I will argue, such […] tools are a kind of intellectual Trojan horse, a vehicle through which assumptions about what constitutes information swarm with potent force. These assumptions are cloaked in a rhetoric taken wholesale from the techniques of the empirical sciences that conceals their epistemological biases under a guise of familiarity.


Rendering observation (the act of creating a statistical, empirical, or subjective account or image) as if it were the same as the phenomena observed collapses the critical distance between the phenomenal world and its interpretation, undoing the basis of interpretation on which humanistic knowledge production is based.

But what Drucker does not acknowledge here is that this positivist account is a century-old caricature of the fundamental assumptions of the sciences. Moretti’s account of operationalization as it percolates through physics is evidence of this. The operational view very much agrees with Drucker’s thesis, where the phenomena observed takes second stage to a definition steeped in the nature of measurement itself. Indeed, Einstein’s introduction of relativity relied on an understanding that our physical laws and observations of them rely not on the things themselves, but on our ability to measure them in various circumstances. The prevailing theory of the universe on a large scale is a theory of measurement, not of matter. Moretti’s reliance on natural scientific roots, then, is not antithetical to his humanistic goals.

I’m a bit horrified to see myself typing this, but I believe Moretti doesn’t go far enough in appropriating natural scientific conceptual frameworks. When describing what formal operationalization brings to the table that was not there before, he lists precision as the primary addition. “It’s new because it’s precise,” Moretti claims, “Phaedra is allocated 29 percent of the word-space, not 25, or 39.” But he asks himself: is this precision useful? Sometimes, he concludes, “It adds detail, but it doesn’t change what we already knew.”

From Moretti, 'Operationalizing', New Left Review.
From Moretti, ‘Operationalizing’, New Left Review.

I believe Moretti is asking the wrong first question here, and he’s asking it because he does not steal enough from the natural sciences. The question, instead, should be: is this precision meaningful? Only after we’ve assessed the reliability of new-found precision can we understand its utility, and here we can take some inspiration from the scientists, in their notions of accuracy, precision, uncertainty, and significant figures.


First some definitions. The accuracy of a measurement is how close it is to the true value you are trying to capture, whereas the precision of a measurement is how often a repeated measurement produces the same results. The number of significant figures is a measurement of how precise the measuring instrument can possibly be. False precision is the illusion that one’s measurement is more precise than is warranted given the significant figures. Propagation of uncertainty is the pesky habit of false precision to weasel its way into the conclusion of a study, suggesting conclusions that might be unwarranted.

Accuracy and Precision. [via]
Accuracy and Precision. [via]
Accuracy roughly corresponds to how well-suited your operationalization is to finding the answer you’re looking for. For example, if you’re interested in the importance of Gulliver in Gulliver’s Travels, and your measurement is based on how often the character name is mentioned (12 times, by the way), you can be reasonably certain your measurement is inaccurate for your purposes.

Precision roughly corresponds to how fine-tuned your operationalization is, and how likely it is that slight changes in measurement will affect the outcomes of the measurement. For example, if you’re attempting to produce a network of interacting characters from The Three Musketeers, and your measuring “instrument” is increase the strength of connection between two characters every time they appear in the same 100-word block, then you might be subject to difficulties of precision. That is, your network might look different if you start your sliding 100-word window from the 1st word, the 15th word, or the 50th word. The amount of variation in the resulting network is the degree of imprecision of your operationalization.

Significant figures are a bit tricky to port to DH use. When you’re sitting at home, measuring some space for a new couch, you may find that your meter stick only has tick marks to the centimeter, but nothing smaller. This is your highest threshold for precision; if you eyeballed and guessed your space was actually 250.5cm, you’ll have reported a falsely precise number. Others looking at your measurement may have assumed your meter stick was more fine-grained than it was, and any calculations you make from that number will propagate that falsely precise number.

Significant Figures. [via]
Significant Figures. [via]
Uncertainty propagation is especially tricky when you wind up combing two measurements together, when one is more precise and the other less. The rule of thumb is that your results can only be as precise as the least precise measurements that made its way into your equation. The final reported number is then generally in the form of 250 (±1 cm). Thankfully, for our couch, the difference of a centimeter isn’t particularly appreciable. In DH research, I have rarely seen any form of precision calculated, and I believe some of those projects would have reported different results had they accurately represented their significant figures.

Precision, Accuracy, and Appreciability in DH

Moretti’s discussion of the increase of precision granted by operationalization leaves out any discussion of the certainty of that precision. Let’s assume for a moment that his operationalization is accurate (that is, his measurement is a perfect conversion between data and theory). Are his measurements precise? In the case of Phaedra, the answer at first glance is yes, words-per-character in a play would be pretty robust against slight changes in the measurement process.

And yet, I imagine, that answer will probably not sit well with some humanists. They may ask themselves: Is Oenone’s 12%  appreciably different from Theseus’s 13% of the word-space of the play? In the eyes of the author? Of the actors? Of the audience? Does the difference make a difference?

The mechanisms by which people produce and consume literature is not precise. Surely Jean Racine did not sit down intending to give Theseus a fraction more words than Oenone. Perhaps in DH we need a measurement of precision, not of the measuring device, but of our ability to interact with the object we are studying. In a sense, I’m arguing, we are not limited to the precision of the ruler when measuring humanities objects, but to the precision of the human.

In the natural sciences, accuracy is constrained by precision: you can only have as accurate a measurement as your measuring device is precise.  In the corners of humanities where we study how people interact with each other and with cultural objects, we need a new measurement that constrains both precision and accuracy: appreciability. A humanities quantification can only be as precise as that precision is appreciable by the people who interact with matter at hand. If two characters differ by a single percent of the wordspace, and that difference is impossible to register in a conscious or subconscious level, what is the meaning of additional levels of precision (and, consequently, additional levels of accuracy)?

Experimental Digital Humanities

Which brings us to experimental DH. How does one evaluate the appreciability of an operationalization except by devising clever experiments to test the extent of granularity a person can register? Without such understanding, we will continue to create formulae and visualizations which portray a false sense of precision. Without visual cues to suggest uncertainty, graphs present a world that is exact and whose small differentiations appear meaningful or deliberate.

Experimental DH is not without precedent. In Reading Tea Leaves (Chang et al., 2009), for example, the authors assessed the quality of certain topic modeling tweaks based on how a large number of people assessed the coherence of certain topics. If this approach were to catch on, as well as more careful acknowledgements of accuracy, precision, and appreciability, then those of us who are making claims to knowledge in DH can seriously bolster our cases.

There are some who present the formal nature of DH as antithetical to the highly contingent and interpretative nature of the larger humanities. I believe appreciability and experimentation can go some way alleviating the tension between the two schools, building one into the other. On the way, it might build some trust in humanists who think we sacrifice experience for certainty, and in natural scientists who are skeptical of our abilities to apply quantitative methods.

Right now, DH seems to find its most fruitful collaborations in computer science or statistics departments. Experimental DH would open the doors to new types of collaborations, especially with psychologists and sociologists.

I’m at an extremely early stage in developing these ideas, and would welcome all comments (especially those along the lines of “You dolt! Appreciability already exists, we call it x.”) Let’s see where this goes.

Bridging Token and Type

There’s an oft-spoken and somewhat strawman tale of how the digital humanities is bridging C.P. Snow’s “Two Culture” divide, between the sciences and the humanities. This story is sometimes true (it’s fun putting together Ocean’s Eleven-esque teams comprising every discipline needed to get the job done) and sometimes false (plenty of people on either side still view the other with skepticism), but as a historian of science, I don’t find the divide all that interesting. As Snow’s title suggests, this divide is first and foremost cultural. There’s another overlapping divide, a bit more epistemological, methodological, and ontological, which I’ll explore here. It’s the nomothetic(type)/idiographic(token) divide, and I’ll argue here that not only are its barriers falling, but also that the distinction itself is becoming less relevant.

Nomothetic (Greek for “establishing general laws”-ish) and Idiographic (Greek for “pertaining to the individual thing”-ish) approaches to knowledge have often split the sciences and the humanities. I’ll offload the hard work onto Wikipedia:

Nomothetic is based on what Kant described as a tendency to generalize, and is typical for the natural sciences. It describes the effort to derive laws that explain objective phenomena in general.

Idiographic is based on what Kant described as a tendency to specify, and is typical for the humanities. It describes the effort to understand the meaning of contingent, unique, and often subjective phenomena.

These words are long and annoying to keep retyping, and so in the longstanding humanistic tradition of using new words for words which already exist, henceforth I shall refer to nomothetic as type and idiographic as token. 1 I use these because a lot of my digital humanities readers will be familiar with their use in text mining. If you counted the number of unique words in a text, you’d be be counting the number of types. If you counted the number of total words in a text, you’d be counting the number of tokens, because each token (word) is an individual instance of a type. You can think of a type as the platonic ideal of the word (notice the word typical?), floating out there in the ether, and every time it’s actually used, it’s one specific token of that general type.

The Token/Type Distinction
The Token/Type Distinction

Usually the natural and social sciences look for general principles or causal laws, of which the phenomena they observe are specific instances. A social scientist might note that every time a student buys a $500 textbook, they actively seek a publisher to punch, but when they purchase $20 textbooks, no such punching occurs. This leads to the discovery of a new law linking student violence with textbook prices. It’s worth noting that these laws can and often are nuanced and carefully crafted, with an awareness that they are neither wholly deterministic nor ironclad.

The humanities (or at least history, which I’m more familiar with) are more interested in what happened than in what tends to happen. Without a doubt there are general theories involved, just as in the social sciences there are specific instances, but the intent is most-often to flesh out details and create a particular internally consistent narrative. They look for tokens where the social scientists look for types. Another way to look at it is that the humanist wants to know what makes a thing unique, and the social scientist wants to know what makes a thing comparable.

It’s been noted these are fundamentally different goals. Indeed, how can you in the same research articulate the subjective contingency of an event while simultaneously using it to formulate some general law, applicable in all such cases? Rather than answer that question, it’s worth taking time to survey some recent research.

A recent digital humanities panel at MLA elicited responses by Ted Underwood and Haun Saussy, of which this post is in part itself a response. One of the papers at the panel, by Long and So, explored the extent to which haiku-esque poetry preceded what is commonly considered the beginning of haiku in America by about 20 years. They do this by teaching the computer the form of the haiku, and having it algorithmically explore earlier poetry looking for similarities. Saussy comments on this work:

[…] macroanalysis leads us to reconceive one of our founding distinctions, that between the individual work and the generality to which it belongs, the nation, context, period or movement. We differentiate ourselves from our social-science colleagues in that we are primarily interested in individual cases, not general trends. But given enough data, the individual appears as a correlation among multiple generalities.

One of the significant difficulties faced by digital humanists, and a driving force behind critics like Johanna Drucker, is the fundamental opposition between the traditional humanistic value of stressing subjectivity, uniqueness, and contingency, and the formal computational necessity of filling a database with hard decisions. A database, after all, requires you to make a series of binary choices in well-defined categories: is it or isn’t it an example of haiku? Is the author a man or a woman? Is there an author or isn’t there an author?

Underwood addresses this difficulty in his response:

Though we aspire to subtlety, in practice it’s hard to move from individual instances to groups without constructing something like the sovereign in the frontispiece for Hobbes’ Leviathan – a homogenous collection of instances composing a giant body with clear edges.

But he goes on to suggest that the initial constraint of the digital media may not be as difficult to overcome as it appears. Computers may even offer us a way to move beyond the categories we humanists use, like genre or period.

Aren’t computers all about “binary logic”? If I tell my computer that this poem both is and is not a haiku, won’t it probably start to sputter and emit smoke?

Well, maybe not. And actually I think this is a point that should be obvious but just happens to fall in a cultural blind spot right now. The whole point of quantification is to get beyond binary categories — to grapple with questions of degree that aren’t well-represented as yes-or-no questions. Classification algorithms, for instance, are actually very good at shades of gray; they can express predictions as degrees of probability and assign the same text different degrees of membership in as many overlapping categories as you like.

Here we begin to see how the questions asked of digital humanists (on the one side; computational social scientists are tackling these same problems) are forcing us to reconsider the divide between the general and the specific, as well as the meanings of categories and typologies we have traditionally taken for granted. However, this does not yet cut across the token/type divide: this has gotten us to the macro scale, but it does not address general principles or laws that might govern specific instances. Historical laws are a murky subject, prone to inducing fits of anti-deterministic rage. Complex Systems Science and the lessons we learn from Agent-Based Modeling, I think, offer us a way past that dilemma, but more on that later.

For now, let’s talk about influence. Or diffusion. Or intertextuality. 2 Matthew Jockers has been exploring these concepts, most recently in his book Macroanalysis. The undercurrent of his research (I think I’ve heard him call it his “dangerous idea”) is a thread of almost-determinism. It is the simple idea that an author’s environment influences her writing in profound and easy to measure ways. On its surface it seems fairly innocuous, but it’s tied into a decades-long argument about the role of choice, subjectivity, creativity, contingency, and determinism. One word that people have used to get around the debate is affordances, and it’s as good a word as any to invoke here. What Jockers has found is a set of environmental conditions which afford certain writing styles and subject matters to an author. It’s not that authors are predetermined to write certain things at certain times, but that a series of factors combine to make the conditions ripe for certain writing styles, genres, etc., and not for others. The history of science analog would be the idea that, had Einstein never existed, relativity and quantum physics would still have come about; perhaps not as quickly, and perhaps not from the same person or in the same form, but they were ideas whose time had come. The environment was primed for their eventual existence. 3

An example of shape affording certain actions by constraining possibilities and influencing people. [via]
An example of shape affording certain actions by constraining possibilities and influencing people. [via]
It is here we see the digital humanities battling with the token/type distinction, and finding that distinction less relevant to its self-identification. It is no longer a question of whether one can impose or generalize laws on specific instances, because the axes of interest have changed. More and more, especially under the influence of new macroanalytic methodologies, we find that the specific and the general contextualize and augment each other.

The computational social sciences are converging on a similar shift. Jon Kleinberg likes to compare some old work by Stanley Milgram 4, where he had people draw maps of cities from memory, with digital city reconstruction projects which attempt to bridge the subjective and objective experiences of cities. The result in both cases is an attempt at something new: not quite objective, not quite subjective, and not quite intersubjective. It is a representation of collective individual experiences which in its whole has meaning, but also can be used to contextualize the specific. That these types of observations can often lead to shockingly accurate predictive “laws” isn’t really the point; they’re accidental results of an attempt to understand unique and contingent experiences at a grand scale. 5

Manhattan. Dots represent where people have taken pictures; blue dots are by locals, red by tourists, and yellow unsure. [via Eric Fischer]
Manhattan. Dots represent where people have taken pictures; blue dots are by locals, red by tourists, and yellow are uncertain. [via Eric Fischer]
It is no surprise that the token/type divide is woven into the subjective/objective divide. However, as Daston and Galison have pointed out, objectivity is not an ahistorical category. 6 It has a history, is only positively defined in relation to subjectivity, and neither were particularly useful concepts before the 19th century.

I would argue, as well, that the nomothetic and idiographic divide is one which is outliving its historical usefulness. Work from both the digital humanities and the computational social sciences is converging to a point where the objective and the subjective can peaceably coexist, where contingent experiences can be placed alongside general predictive principles without any cognitive dissonance, under a framework that allows both deterministic and creative elements. It is not that purely nomothetic or purely idiographic research will no longer exist, but that they no longer represent a binary category which can usefully differentiate research agendas. We still have Snow’s primary cultural distinctions, of course, and a bevy of disciplinary differences, but it will be interesting to see where this shift in axes takes us.


  1. I am not the first to do this. Aviezer Tucker (2012) has a great chapter in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Social Science, “Sciences of Historical Tokens and Theoretical Types: History and the Social Sciences” which introduces and historicizes the vocabulary nicely.
  2. Underwood’s post raises these points, as well.
  3. This has sometimes been referred to as environmental possibilism.
  4. Milgram, Stanley. 1976. “Pyschological Maps of Paris.” In Environmental Psychology: People and Their Physical Settings, edited by Proshansky, Ittelson, and Rivlin, 104–124. New York.

    ———. 1982. “Cities as Social Representations.” In Social Representations, edited by R. Farr and S. Moscovici, 289–309.

  5. If you’re interested in more thoughts on this subject specifically, I wrote a bit about it in relation to single-authorship in the humanities here
  6. Daston, Lorraine, and Peter Galison. 2007. Objectivity. New York, NY: Zone Books.

Bridging the gap

Traditional disciplinary silos have always been useful fictions. They help us organize our research centers, our journals, our academies, and our lives. However much simplicity we gain from quickly and easily being able to place research X into box Y, however, is offset by the requirement of fitting research X into one and only one box Y. What we gain in simplicity, we lose in flexibility.

The academy is facing convergence on two fronts.

A turn toward computation, complicated methodologies, and more nuanced approaches to research is erecting increasingly complex barriers to entry on basic scholarship. Where once disparate disciplines had nothing in common besides membership in the academy, now they are connected by a joint need for computer infrastructure, algorithm expertise, and methodological training. I recently commiserated with a high energy physicist and a geneticist on the difficulties of parallelizing certain data analysis algorithms. Somehow, in the space of minutes, we three very unrelated researchers reached common ground.

An increasing reliance on consilience provides the other converging factor. A steady but relentless rise in interest in interdisciplinarity has manifested itself in scholarly writings through increasingly wide citation patterns. That is, scholars are drawing from sources further from their own, and with growing frequency. 1 Much of this may be attributed to the rise of computer-aided document searches. Whatever the reasons, scholars are drawing from a much wider variety of research, and this in turn often brings more variety to their research.

Google Ngrams shows us how much people like to say "interdisciplinarity."
Measuring the interdisciplinarity of papers over time. From Guo, Hanning, Scott B. Weingart, and Katy Börner. 2011. “Mixed-indicators model for identifying emerging research areas.” Scientometrics 89 (June 21): 421-435.

Methodological and infrastructural convergence, combined with subject consilience, is dislodging scholarship from its traditional disciplinary silos. Perhaps, in an age when one-item-one-box taxonomies are rapidly being replaced by more flexible categorization schemes and machine-assisted self-organizations, these disciplinary distinctions are no longer as useful as they once were.

Unfortunately, the boom of interdisciplinary centers and institutes in the 70’s and 80’s left many graduates untenurable. By focusing on problems out the scope of any one traditional discipline, graduates from these programs often found themselves outside the scope of any particular group that might hire them. A university system that has existed in some recognizable form for the last thousand years cannot help but pick up inertia, and that indeed is what has happened here. While a flexible approach to disciplinarity might be better if starting all over again, the truth is we have to work with what we have, and a total overhaul is unlikely.

The question is this: what are the smallest and easiest possible changes we can make, at the local level, to improve the environment for increasingly convergent research in the long term? Is there a minimal amount of work one can do such that the returns are sufficiently large to support flexibility? One inspiring step is Bethany Nowviskie‘s (and many others’) #alt-ac project and the movement surrounding it, which pushes for alternative or unconventional academic careers.

Alternative Academic Careers

The #alt-ac movement seems to be picking up the most momentum with those straddling the tech/humanities divide, however it is equally important for those crossing all traditional academic divides. This includes divides between traditionally diverse disciplines (e.g., literature and social science), between methods (e.g., unobtrusive measures and surveys), between methodologies (e.g., quantitative and qualitative), or in general between C.P. Snow’s “Two Cultures” of science and the humanities.

These divides are often useful and, given that they are reinforced by tradition, it’s usually not worth the effort to attempt to move beyond them. The majority of scholarly work still fits reasonably well within some pre-existing community. For those working across these largely constructed divides, however, an infrastructure needs to exist to support their research. National and private funding agencies have answered this call admirably, however significant challenges still exist at the career level.

C.P. Snow bridging the "Two Cultures." Image from Scientific American.

Novel and surprising research often comes from connecting previously unrelated silos. For any combination of communities, if there exists interesting research which could be performed at their intersection, it stands to reason that those which have been most difficult to connect would be the most fruitful if combined. These combinations would likely be the ones with the most low-hanging fruit.

The walls between traditional scholarly communities are fading. In order for the academy to remain agile and flexible, it must facilitate and adapt to the changing scholarly landscape. “The academy,” however, is not some unified entity which can suddenly change directions at the whim of a few; it is all of us. What can we do to affect the desired change? On the scholarly communication front, scholars are adapting  by signing pledges to limit publications and reviews to open access venues. We can talk about increasing interdisciplinarity, but what does interdisciplinarity mean when disciplines themselves are so amorphous?

Have any great ideas on what we can do to improve things? Want to tell me how starry-eyed and ignorant I am, and how unnecessary these changes would be? All comments welcome!

[Note: Surprise! I have a conflict of interest. I’m “interdisciplinary” and eventually want to find a job. Help?]


  1. Increasingly interdisciplinary citation patterns is a trend I noticed when working on a paper I recently co-authored in Scientometrics. Over the last 30 years, publications in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences have shown a small but statistically significant trend in the interdisciplinarity of citations. Whereas a paper 30 years ago may have cited sources from one or a small set of closely related journals, papers now are somewhat more likely to cite a larger number of journals in increasingly disparate fields of study. This does take into account the average number of references per paper. A similar but more pronounced trend was shown in the journal Scientometrics. While this is by no means a perfect indicator for the rise of interdisciplinarity, a combination of this study and anecdotal evidence leads me to believe it is the case.