Privileging Questions in Databases and Digital Humanities

“If print culture foregrounds answers and pushes questions into the background, then perhaps data culture may do the opposite: it privileges queries and treats answers as if they are ephemeral.” In the slides we read for today, this was marked as an “interesting idea,” and I think it is interesting, not only for discussions about databases versus documents, but for the humanities as a whole. I ran into this idea recently in a different context while reading for the Shakespeare Performance class that many of us are in. We were assigned a 2008 essay called “Adaptation Studies at a Crossroads” by Thomas Leitch, which reviewed the most recent scholarly work focusing on the adaptation and appropriation of literary texts. One of Leitch’s criticisms of undergraduate textbooks on the subject is that “they are limited not because they give incorrect answers to the questions they pose, but because those questions themselves are so limited in their general implications” (68). Leitch further asserts that sometimes “the question is more valuable than any answer” (75) and endorses textbooks that raise productive questions about adaptation studies even, or especially, when those questions are unanswerable.

It’s interesting that Leitch would raise some of the same issues as the DHSI slides, as he is largely dealing with the same kind of shift from print (books) to digital (movies). I think the privileging of questions rather than answers that Leitch and the DHSI lecture bring up is a productive approach to the humanities, and one that is sometimes itself underprivileged. Asking the right kinds of questions is always more important and more productive than definitively answering the wrong ones. And our answers to these questions often change over time anyway. In light of these observations, I’m not going to attempt a conclusion to this post; instead, here are some questions that might prove productive:  How can or will databases change our modes of research? What are the relative advantages and disadvantages of these changes? How can we use quantitative data provided by databases within the framework of disciplines that focus on the “human,” or at least on things that we believe to be largely unquantifiable?

3 thoughts on “Privileging Questions in Databases and Digital Humanities

  1. Allison Wheatley

    I know that your question “How can or will databases change our modes of research?” is a forward-looking one, but I can’t help but be grateful for how much easier they have already made our research. When we search online bibliographies, EBSCOHost, JSTOR, etc. we are accessing databases that contain articles and data about them. It takes me long enough to do research, and as a student who always had computer access, I can’t imagine doing it without these tools and being limited to print bibliographies, both annotated and in books/articles. It will be exciting to see where else databases can take us and what our students in 20 years can’t imagine having lived without.

  2. Matt Smith

    Tonight, at Mark Algee-Hewitt’s lecture, Alex Cook asked whether or not Mark runs across ethical dilemmas, such as presentism, when choosing how to visualize data. I think, too, that how one poses questions can be equally as problematic. For example, research can be collected to support some tautological premise that supports an obviously unethical stance. At lunch Mark mentioned that he refused to collect data regarding how books become popular (for a popular book publisher in the UK). Regular, perhaps obsolete, textual analysis seems free of these possibilities. If I were to propose an unethical premise for an article, I would be the only one to blame. Digital research, such as metrics, analytics, and large-data mining, seem to be more sentient and harder to control. Mark mentioned at the lecture, it is often easy to distort data with visualization. This is a potential problem the more abstract and large-scale the project becomes, I imagine.

  3. Geoffrey Emerson

    Your question, Emily, about the “human” in quantitative based humanities inquiry is striking. For some reason (and I am partly being ironic) I thought of anatomy and cadaver dissection during the Renaissance. I think that such an empirical and analytic approach to the human was thought to denigrate the subject. That is, there is so much more to being human than a collection of veins, organs, and muscles. I wonder if, in time, the relationship between data and human will be integrated in a similar way to our modern conceptions of spiritualism and materialism–continually in tension, but somehow co-existent.

Comments are closed.