Digital History and Historical Argumentation

how to make a historical argument when your evidence is digital

For Arguing With Digital History, a forthcoming workshop about how digital historians might engage in explicit historical argumentation, participants have been asked to answer (in two pages!) a series of questions based on our own work. (I considered this question at the AHA in 2015). I’m seeking feedback in the hopes of bringing more perspectives to the table.

If you are interested in this topic, please consider submitting to Current Research in Digital History.

Is argumentation in digital history different? how is it the same?
Frame as history
Argumentation in digital history is not innately different from argumentation found in other forms of history. If you want to reach historians, write for historians. The signposting of historiography and/or historical context helps other historians to understand where your argument fits in the larger disciplinary conversations.

In “Revisiting “A Kind of Memo” from Casey Hayden and Mary King (1965),” I used a digital tool, Juxta, to pinpoint differences between an archived copy of a historical document and the far better know published version. I first anchored the essay in an extremely familiar historiography before offering my particular intervention. Similarly, in “Under This Name She is Fitly Described”: A Digital History of Gender in theHistory of Woman Suffrage a computational analysis of the six-volume text, I connected my argument to the work of suffrage historian Ellen Dubois, as well as Joan Scott’s point that gender was originally a linguistic concept.

If you are aiming at the broader audience in the digital humanities, then the presentation will differ, but the risk is some historians who are not digitally inclined may be put off by historical analysis that is presented within that context.

Should digital history arguments be specific to history or interdisciplinary?
Foreground argumentation
 
Digital history argumentation may be disciplinary or interdisciplinary depending on the intended audience. To reach an audience of historians, you need to make them care about your argument before explaining how you arrived at it digitally. Within the interdisciplinary digital humanities, we are often bound by common methods, rather than similar questions or content, and thus we start with methodological explanations. Among historians, however, the commonalities are disciplinary; historians want to know how digital history analysis relates to their field. If those arguments are not foregrounded, some historians may simply stop reading.

To explain unfamiliar digital methodologies to historians, consider using footnotes or placing a methods section further along in paper. In the case of “Revisiting “A Kind of Memo” the digital tool used was not particularly complex and a single sentence explanation sufficed. However, the corpus linguistic analysis of “Under This Name She is Fitly Described” required significantly more explanation for unfamiliar readers. I had originally proposed a separate methodological essay to accompany this essay, but the publishers felt readers needed that information integrated into the main text. I included in the introduction the shortest explanation of corpus linguistics possible. I then broke down the complex methodology as I presented the results so as to avoid overwhelming the reader, but also to maintain their interest. I relegated most technical details to footnotes and the extensive legends of the data visualizations.

What are the barriers to making arguments in digital history?
Focus your questions
 
Placing digital history arguments in conversation with scholarly literature on the topic requires framing questions in ways that are familiar to historians. Starting with a very focused question will result in an argument that looks more like what we generally do; analyze something specific that we then connect to something larger. Difficulties with digital history argumentation may result from what I’ve described as the “gee whiz” approach, in which large scale sources are mined for an often very broad historical topic. While this latter approach results in striking data visualizations and sounds quite impressive (all of X topic in Y sources), this is not the common scale of most historical argumentation. Indeed, for many people, this is precisely the promise of digital history; it will change the questions we can ask about the past. I am in sympathy with this approach; I often describe myself as looking for needles in digital haystacks, relying on multiple methodologies to locate lesser-known historical subjects who provide connections between the various historical moments I write about. However, such digital history argumentation may be unintelligible to some of our peers who are accustomed to close readings of a relatively small set of historical sources that are then connected to a larger narrative.

This, then, is where the “so what” or “why do this” response to digital history sometimes appears. In “Revisiting “A Kind of Memo,” I framed my argument very narrowly; the digital analysis sheds new light on an iconic moment in the history of American feminism. Similarly, “Under This Name She is Fitly Described” asked a very simply question, is there evidence of gender in a historical source that pre-dates our modern conception of that term. Still, in a preliminary presentation of “Under This Name She is Fitly Described” I was challenged by an audience member to explain, “how this changes about what we already know about suffrage.” Even after revising the piece, I don’t think framed the argument simply enough; suffrage was not just about sex, but rather about relational gender; particularly in the texts from black woman suffragists database.

What to do about publishing of digital history?
Face Facts
 Until we sort out publishing venues for our work, I fear for the future of digital historians, who must publish to obtain tenure and secure professional advancement, and for digital history, which must reach beyond its own confines to become something other than a passing fad.

Over dinner one night at an academic conference someone remarked about my work “you write about marginalized individuals using a marginalized methodology and you publish in marginalized places.” This comment sent me reeling because it baldly states some difficult truths. I am grateful for the opportunities I have had to publish in online journals like Women and Social Movements, Boundary 2, and Artl@s. These sites have afforded me the opportunity to publish hyperlinked essays with many visualizations, but HTML augmented essays are becoming more common even in journals that continue to produce paper copies. I’d like to see efforts to shift some of the content of top tier history journals away from digital history project reviews to articles based on digital history argumentation. However, I know all too well the lack of submissions I’ve received for the initiative I head up for Women and Social Movements, and indeed, I am guilty of not submitting any unsolicited articles based on digital history argumentation, in part because I have been offered so many publishing opportunities, but also for fear that my subject matter, a digital history of feminism (as opposed to the more common feminist critiques of digital methodologies), would not be considered historically significant enough by non-specialist journals, and that my digital approach would not be accepted by non-digital historians.