Reading response 10/11: On Theory and Creation

This week I want to respond primarily to some of the comments Cecire’s introduction to the Winter 2011 issue of the Journal of Digital Humanities and the role of theory in the digital humanities.

Cecire quotes Bauer in saying that “the database is the theory.” I wanted to better understand the context behind this phrase (is she asserting or noting that it has been asserted?) so I went to the source to find out, and it turns out this is something someone else said at a conference in defense of Bauer. So: it was an assertion.

In fact Bauer’s piece (turns out it was originally a blog post) is a counter-argument to the argument I was intending on making: that many digital humanities project seem to lack a theoretical component. To me, theory is what separates journalism from academic work; the ethnographer or sociologist working without theory is just reporting what they find.

I am glad I read Bauer’s post, though, as it has helped me to clarify my objection: many digital humanities projects bury, hide, or obfuscate the theories driving them (I am giving their makers the benefit of the doubt and assuming Bauer is right in that the theory drives the creation). For example, what theory drove the Making Memories project? In reading the report there was very little theorization beyond “we thought these activities would achieve what we wanted them to.” The same could be said of The Real Face of White Australia and the Bracero History archive. I do not doubt their creators had some theoretical framework in mind, but I have not been able to find it.

The same could be said about argumentation, which we have already identified as a problem in these kinds of works: are these works making a meaningful argument? Of course one can say that the decisions behind what to include and exclude in a database is a form of argument, but I submit it is a weak one.

(I do think that creating a database is a useful and meaningful end in itself, but I think it unwise to equate that creation with a theoretical contribution.)

I find this lack somewhat frustrating, because this is something we deal with in game studies all the time, and I think we as a field have a pretty good solution: make a game, either to test a theory or as design research, and write a paper about it. By having a place to explain the theories and goals behind the game one can make a theoretically-informed argument in the traditional sense and in the game itself. This pairing has proven quite successful and is a common type of conference paper.

Speaking of design research, I keep expecting to see it come up in the articles we have been reading. Essentially the idea is that one can test an idea or theory through building something, that is, the process of creation is itself a form of research and arguably more important than the finished project. I would love to read some post-mortems or articles from people making DH projects about their process. Why did they build it the way they did? What were the theories that informed them? In the case of nearly all the projects we have looked at so far, I think such a post-project analysis would be just as useful, if not more so, than the project itself.


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