What sociologists can learn from the digital humanities

Week 2 Blog Post

Sometimes I forget that as a sociology PhD student, I’m in an academic discipline outside the Humanities. Granted, there are numerous similarities. Sociology—the study of humans, behaviors, relationships, and social structures—shares the central focus on people with the humanities. I felt some relief in reading Digital Humanities: The Expanded Field, learning it is common for digital humanities scholars to have other “home disciplines.” Despite entering my program wanting to become a real researcher—the kind recognized by the academy and thinktanks—the majority of my funding and support from the Graduate Center has come through humanities centers and initiatives that have done much more for my activism and political education. And while sociology and many other social sciences have historical roots in disciplines belonging to the humanities, I sometimes feel stuck in the space that delineates the two disciplines.

It seems that the histories and origin stories of both sociology and digital humanities are characterized by an insecurity of being taken seriously within academia. Both areas boast a rich interdisciplinary origin, which seems to have contributed, somewhat counterintuitively, to the respective debates on their validity within academia. Emile Durkheim’s evangelizing of sociology’s legitimacy as a science in the 1800’s shares narrative similarities to the tensions Gold descries in the three introductory pieces on digital humanities: a discipline that knows itself and its value, but is not fully recognized or accepted by the academy. By some measure, it would seem that the interdisciplinary nature and transdisciplinary utility of each would be an argument for their belonging. For instance, in learning about the debate among humanities scholars on whether digital humanities is a methodology or a discipline, the binary option felt reductive—why can’t it be both? What became clearer with each piece is that the emergence of digital humanities represents a significant social evolution that sociology—with its emphasis on being considered a legitimate science—has not (yet?) accomplished. Sociology’s quest for acceptance emphasized its neutral empiricism, capable of producing objective truth. Digital humanities, and possibly the humanities in general, seems more comfortable with its political orientation and emphasis on doing, rather than knowing.

The grounding in the history of the digital humanities and contextualization of the current moment in time in the three Gold pieces prepared me to approach Spiro’s chapter, and the considerations proposed, with ambitious optimism: Is digital humanities about solidifying or challenging scholarship? I hope the latter, but maybe both. Ultimately, these readings helped me begin to understand why I have unintentionally found a home in the humanities: because of its core values of mentorship, collaboration, community, and driving change.