Thursday, November 18, 2010

More on Grafton

One more note on that Grafton quote, which I'll post below.
“The digital humanities do fantastic things,” said the eminent Princeton historian Anthony Grafton. “I’m a believer in quantification. But I don’t believe quantification can do everything. So much of humanistic scholarship is about interpretation.”
“It’s easy to forget the digital media are means and not ends,” he added.
Anne pointed out at dinner that the reason this is so frustrating is because it gives far too much credit to quantification. Grafton has tossed out all the history of science he's been so involved in and pretends he thinks that the quantitative sciences use numbers to reveal irrefutable facts about the world. I'm sure there are people who do believe that they unearth truth through elaborate cliometrics; but those oddballs are far less harmful and numerous than those who think the humanities are about 'interpretations', and the sciences about 'facts.' Again, I bet this in some way this is a misstatement or misquotation. Still, it made it through because it's so representative of how a lot of the profession thinks.

(more below the break)

I got the database running well enough to produce some interesting classifications of the isms, which I have to graph up before I can post them. But Grafton's quote makes me want to issue a disclaimer: these are exploratory data analyses, not statistical tests with error bars. I think there's little use for those in the sort of data I'm looking at, but a great deal for interpretative data exploration.

And by the way, exploratory data analysis is not just 'visualizations'--visualizations are often graphics to help teach or illustrate what we know, while exploratory data analysis includes both graphics and numbers to help researchers or students understand patterns they might not see before. There's a strong pedigree for general use this way back through the years--I'm thinking particularly of very specific statistical techniques Pierre Bourdieu uses in Distinction that would be helpful in some of my word scatterplots. I think the digital humanities need to play that legacy up, and I may try to write out that theorization at some point, maybe on the flight back.

1 comment:

  1. When did Bourdieu write Distinction? Does his career trace that trajectory of the humanities away from quantification that you note in a different post in any way?

    Additionally, I think that my point about Grafton's uncharacteristic expression of faith in data as somehow closed to interpretation, revelatory of facts rather than grounds for the analysis of beliefs [the core of cultural history: meaning-making] should be posted into your previous entry from when you first got to Moscow, as no one is going to click through to read the 'more' on nytimes section, plus it's a very similar point to the one you make in your first post, in no.1.

    Otherwise I'm a fan. My name has a weird set of parentheses next to it and I don't know why.