Tag Archives: Digital Humanities

How Academia Works After the Quantitative Revolution

In 2008, I noted the “quantitative revolution,” which replaced the romantic academia many dream about with a discovery factory:

Both the old Academy and the Leftists, however, are under even more heartless attack from the Quantitative Revolution, the measurement-and-control movement that subjects everything to test-and-reject, measure-and-fund, quantitative certainties.

The romantic academia that lives in our heart is dying or dead. Given a future between the Tyranny of Leftists and the Tyranny of the Quantitative Revolutions, my sympathies go to the quantitativists. They save what can be saved, submitting the universities to Research, Application, and funded Goals.

Last year, I formalized that description of how academia works:

Professors, like most people, respond to the incentives of power, influence, and money.

The institution of tenure reduces uncertainty regarding money, and focuses the incentives on power and influence.

Power in academia comes from the number of bodies a professor has under him. These bodies might be apprentices (graduate students he advises), journeymen (post-docs who have a PhD and work at the lab, or staff researchers), or simple workers (lab technicians, etc).

Influence in academia comes from the extent to which one is successful in influencing one’s peers. This is typically measured in terms of influence scores, which are a product of how often the academic is cited, weighted by how important of a publication he is cited in.

The best route to both power and influence is to earn grant money.

Daniel Allington must read my blog, as he writes the same thing:

Even among successful players of the funding game – and certain digital humanists have been very successful players, of late – one may find disquiet at the game itself, at the disproportionate importance now attached to it, and at the negative impact it is having on the careers of new researchers and (in the long term) on access to the profession as a whole by accelerating the casualization of both teaching and research. The underlying problem – regretted by practically everyone with a genuine love of scholarship – is the ongoing reconstruction of all disciplines on the social model of the natural sciences and the creeping abandonment of ‘autonomy’ (in the sense used by Bourdieu, 1993 [1987]) in the academic field through tacit acceptance of the principle – shared by university administrators, government ministers, and hiring committees alike – that knowledge can and should be valued primarily for its moneymaking potential. In

Allington is particular worried about the “digital humanities” which provides a road out of the ghetto for humanities students. Allington criticizes this as revealing “the corrupting agenda of our paymasters” — apparently he sees nothing wrong with the old boys network that progress-based research replaces.

The Humanities, the Sciences, and Strategy

The Servants of Strategy

The humanities and the Sciences are siblings. Both serve Strategy. Graduates from the Sciences can usefully serve Strategy to the extent they understand the tools of prediction and control: improvement, and are not distracted by non-normal, revolutionary science. Graduates from the Humanities can usefully serve Strategy to the extend they understand the tools of understanding and explanation, and are not distracted by critical political agendas.

Why We Do What We Do

The purpose of Science is to “predict, control, and improve” phenomena. The sort of phenomenon that is being predicted (at a minimum), controlled (one would hope), and improved (ideally) tells you what sort of Science you are in. Cognitive Psychology focuses on cognitive behavior, “Behavioral” Psychology focuses on overt physical behavior, High-energy physics focuses on the behavior of matter under high energy conditions, and so on.

the_sciences

The purpose of the Humanities is to “understand, explain, and improve” phenomena. The sort of phenomenon that is being understood (at a minimum), explained (one would hope), and improved (ideally) tells you what sort of Humanities you are in. English Literature focuses on the written works of the English language, Geography on the nature of space, Anthropology on the nature of communities and so on.

the_humanities

The purpose of strategy is to “understand, control, and improve” phenomena. The sort of phenomenon that is being understood (at a minimum), controlled (one would hope), and improved (ideally) tells you what sort of Policy you are making. Political Strategy focuses on using political influence to obtain and hold offices. Business Strategy focuses on devoting capital and labor to earning a profit. Military Strategy focuses on using violence to achieve political outcomes.

strategy

A Division of Labor

These partially-overlapping purposes make a division of labor sensible. While strategists need to understand phenomenon, they do not need to be able to explain it, thus they can rely on the explanations of others. Likewise, strategists need to control phenomenon, but they do not need to be able to predict it, thus they can rely on the models and planning of others.

Those in the Sciences are useful to the extent they master the tools of prediction and control: tight exemplars, methodology, measurement, and statistics. Those in the Sciences can become useless by being distracted with revolutionary science.

ways_of_knowing_3

Those in the Humanities are useful to the extent they master the tools of understanding and explanation, which largely overlaps with the “digital humanities.” Those in the Humanities can become useless by being distracted with political agendas.

wages_employment_majors_humanities_ghetto_md

Political Agendas, Like Revolutionary Science…

I’ve written a lot about revolutionary science, so instead I’ll focus on the danger of political agendas in the Humanities. Recently, there have been three articles on the humanities. Michael Berube‘s thoughtful “The Humanities, Unruffled,” Razib Khan‘s philippic Against the Cultural Anthropologists,” Graeme Wood‘s interesting Anthropology, Inc.,” and Megan McArdle‘s stupid “What’s the Use of the PhD?.” In different ways, these four articles all focus on the same two problems:

1. What is the way to ensure that the Humanities PhD fulfills its function of understanding, explaining, and improving society
2. Does “improving” imply a pragmatic or a political objective?

These two questions are interwoven. A pragmatic Humanities ensures jobs for graduates to informing policy-makers, a pragmatic Humanities is fruitful and useful. But a political humanities that focuses on “race studies,” “gender studies,” and so on is simply a predator and parasite on academia, using academic resources to achieve a political objective. Megan McArdle’s post is prety dumb — it’s on the same level of intellectualism as an Afghan hick who dismisses astronomy by saying — but both she and Khan are reacting against the entrenched leftism of the humanities.

What You Do

It’s possible to have a fascinating, rewarding, and fun career in the Sciences or in the Humanities, in academia, in non-profits, government, or in business. Both the Humanities and the Sciences understand the same world, and their purposes overlap in their call to improve the world. How well you learn the tools and avoid the pitfalls of fulfilling these purposes can matter a lot.

The Progress of the Humanities

Over on Facebook, my friend Adam Elkus linked me to an article by David Lake, titled “Theory is Dead, Long Live Theory: The End of the Great Debates and the Rise of Eclecticism in International Relations. [pdf]” The piece is extremely strong, and describes International Relations split into two camps: one engaged in normal science capable of progress, and the other a tiresome collection of “Great Debates” that are never answered.

There’s a lot to love in Lake’s paper — it really is very high quality — but the most evocative image from it is the threat that International Relations will split into two fields that do not even study the same phenomenon. What if the scientists focus on experiments (and quasi-experiments) that can be conducted in the here and now, while the Great Debaters retreat into history and just-so stories?

To me, the best hope to save International Relations from such a fate lies in the “digital humanities.” The digital humanities are not just a method for those interested in the past to escape the “humanities ghetto of low employment and low wages
— rather, the “Digital Humanities” use Big Data techniques to understand our common past, in the same way that companies like Facebook use many of the same techniques to understand many private pasts. (Some more information on the digital humanities is available on the personal site of Jason Heppler of Stanford University.)

As an example, take Lake’s discussion of Zara Steiner‘s Triumph of the Dark, a narrative history of the outbreak of the Second World War. Lake notes the rigor of the book, but sadly states such a work can generate no hypotheses or tests. But a digital humanities approach — say working from the massive newspaper, magazine, book, and census corpora at our disposal, is not so limited. It is easy to imagine hypotheses that explain the reason for the motives of leaders with that amount of data to work with. Perhaps the degree to which “Hitler wanted war” can be tracked by measuring the day-to-day bellicosity of the written works of those he met with? Or might the locations that we knew Neville Chamberlain spent certain parts of his life be linked to pro-peace inflections in the lives of others?

International Relations is the science dedicated to predicting, controlling, and improving the behavior of States. This should be done through hypotheses testing, modeling building, and including the methods of the digital humanities. There are many ways to advance science.

In the chaos of old boy networks – in stagnant fields with no progress – it sucks to be young. But in all those areas where science and technology march hand-in-hand toward progress, it is a joy to be young!

Escaping the Humanities Ghetto: Definitions and Paradigms

In both Political Science and the Humanities, the old boys network which prevented progress is collapsing, though it is hard for those who have lived in a field without progress to describe this.

ways_of_knowing_2

Earlier I criticized, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer for saying that International Relations work capable of progress is “non-paradigmatic”

Indeed, some senior IR scholars now rail against the field’s grand theories. In his 2010 ISA presidential address, for example, David Lake described the “isms” as “sects” and “pathologies” that divert attention away from “studying things that matter” (Lake 2011: 471). Thus, it is not surprising that “the percentage of non- paradigmatic research has steadily increased from 30% in 1980 to 50% in 2006” (Maliniak et al 2011: 439). Of course, one could advocate for middle range theories while disparaging grand theories, and indeed Lake does just that. The field is not moving in that direction, however. Nor is it paying more attention to formal or mathematically oriented theories (Bennett et al 2003: 373-74). Instead, it is paying less attention to theories of all kinds and moving toward simplistic hypothesis testing.

But if I am fair, I need to also mention that my friend Jason Heppler of Stanford University made a similar claim, about the Digital Humanities:

Those doing digital humanities tend to agonize over how we define the field (or is it a methodology?). Matt Gold’s edited volume Debates in Digital Humanities nicely sums up many of the ways people have tried to define digital humanities and what we mean when we say we do digital humanities. Certainly there are some common characteristics within the broad range of approaches, but the work itself is broad: it’s interpretation, coding, building, archives, theorizing.

Why define digital humanities? The enterprise is somewhat pointless. The promise and excitement of digital humanities lies with what we can do with it, not how it’s defined. But the queston is inescapable.

I don’t believe that the new International Relations work is apardigmatic, or that Digital Humanities is undefined. Rather, like other useful areas, these fields are defined by their tools and methods, not by ancient theoretical battles that can never be won. Chemistry is not the science of phlogiston, it is the science of titration and fission. Likewise, International Relations and Digital Humanities are increasingly defined by the tools they use to make progress, not connections in an old boys network.

This is a good change. Yesterday I mentioned the ghetto of the humanities, those fields whose graduates (a) can’t do math, (b) can’t conduct useful research, (c) can’t stay employed, and (d) can’t get paid.

wages_employment_majors_humanities_ghetto_md

The adoption of useful tools and progressive science is the best way to turn this around. The emerging paradigms of International Relation are embedded within statistics and modeling. The emerging definitions of Digital Humanities are embedded within text mining, semantic networks, and big data. What do these have in common? Useful tools designed to provide answers and enable progress.