Research trends: Digital hermeneutics – an update for critical thinking in the humanities

 

As part of a new series, the FNR speaks to five experts about research trends in their domain. As the world becomes increasingly digital, historian Prof Andreas Fickers explains how digitisation affects all stages of scientific discovery in humanities, while the impact on the formulation of new historical questions is yet unknown.

Historians work according to a fundamental method, known as hermeneutics, that is around 150 years old. “Hermeneutics is the consideration of how knowledge comes to be and how it can be plausibly passed on,” explains historian Prof Andreas Fickers, Director of the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C2DH) at the University of Luxembourg.

“This concept is based on the assumption that we test our sources – in most cases written documents – for their authenticity and consult them in archive collections. In the digital age, however, this interpretation no longer does justice to the way we work.”

Digitisation affects how humanities discoveries are made

Just as digitisation influences nearly every aspect of our lives nowadays, it also has a huge impact on how humanists make discoveries. Researchers rarely reflect on this reality, Fickers says,

“what will keep us really busy in the next 20 years will be the development of digital hermeneutics. We need to update critical thinking in the humanities for the digital age.”

Historians such as Fickers distinguish between four basic working stages when describing their path to scientific discovery: finding the source or relevant information; analysis; critical interpretation; and finally producing an evidence-based account. “Digitisation affects all these stages in the research process,” explains Fickers. “But the impact it will have on the formulation of new historical questions is as yet completely unknown.”

Grasping search engine algorithms

The digital influence already starts with the search for literature and sources, most of which is done these days with the help of search engines over the Internet. Research results are no longer a culmination of manually working through an archive inventory or library catalogue, but of search engine programming.

“Hardly any historians know and understand the algorithms used in search engines,” says Fickers. 

“Nobody asks about the original – the holy grail of earlier historians”

There is a similar influence in the manner in which sources, i.e. “data”, are stored in digital archives: texts and documents, even sound recordings, films and artworks, are being increasingly digitised.

This is having an impact on their authenticity, as Fickers explains:

“Nobody asks about the original – the holy grail of earlier historians – any more when working with digital reproductions. Instead, we have to wonder about the integrity of the data that represent our sources. For scientifically valid source criticism, we must understand how the data have been encoded, indexed and enriched with metadata. If we ignore digital source criticism, we are abandoning one of the key skills of historical work.”

“It is high time we developed digital hermeneutics and made it standard training for future historians”

Fickers asserts that we also need a critical approach when interpreting digital sources and presenting the results of our interpretations.

“We use digital tools such as audio and video recognition or text mining to ‘read’ our sources. We employ visualisation tools to present our findings, to prepare data sets appealingly, or to make historical correlations visible.”

“The implied objectivity that goes with these representations of information must be deconstructed. Digital hermeneutics therefore also entails digital tool criticism.”

For Fickers, all digital tools, the digitally influenced knowledge acquisition process and the digital representation of research results must be precisely analysed. It is up to historians to be aware of the impact of digitisation on their work practices and production of knowledge.

“It is high time we developed digital hermeneutics and made it standard training for future historians,” Fickers continues. “The languages of the historian have long been the dead languages such as Latin or Ancient Greek. Alongside these, the humanists of the future will also have to understand programming languages.”

About Andreas Fickers

Prof Andreas Fickers is the Director of the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C²DH) at the University of Luxembourg and head of the DH-Lab, as well as Professor of Contemporary and Digital History at the University of Luxembourg. His research ranges from transnational media history to the European history of technology and theory of digital history. He is also the coordinator of the Doctoral Training Unit (DTU) Digital History and Hermeneutics (DHH), of which 11 PhD positions are funded through the FNR’s PRIDE programme.

Prof Andreas Fickers © uni.lu/scienceRELATIONS

INFO BOX: Democratising the humanities

Democratising the humanities

The digitisation of archives is having a strong yet poorly researched influence on the work practices and research results of historians. It is also leading to a democratisation of the humanities: every layperson can search for the “truths” that reside in the archives.

“Visiting the archives used to be an important ritual for historians; archivists would take them by the hand and lead them to the relevant records,” says Andreas Fickers. “Now, anyone can browse through records on the Internet – at least those that have been digitised.”

The Head of the C2DH sees this above all as an opportunity: “Easier access to sources will lead to a proliferation of opinions on historical events. Professional historians will increasingly have to share their authority on the interpretation of the past with others.”

This will surely be a challenge for historians of the digital generation…

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