Quantitative, Computational, Digital: Musing on Definitions and History

I recently ran across a trifecta of adjectives: “quantitative, computational, and digital” history. It intrigued me enough that I did an internet search which gave me precisely 4 hits, 3 of which were for the same job posting. Clearly this isn’t mainstream yet.

That said, the phrasing really resonated with me on a number of levels and continued to haunt me to the point where I finally decided it was worth writing about at a bit of length.

I am, at the end of the day, a quantitative historian – numbers are integral to both my sources and many of my methods. When I first encountered demographic history in grad school, I instinctively called it “history by numbers” and critiqued sample sizes while interrogating authors’ calculations. My dissertation and first book project analyze early modern British numeracy and quantitative thinking, while my current DH project involves quantification at a massive scale (Death by Numbers: building a database out of the London Bills of Mortality so that I can examine, among other things, early modern people’s addition skills).

As needed, I am also a computational historian – methodologically I use statistics and computer programming on a semi-regular basis. My work on the Six Degrees of Francis Bacon project involved statistical work in R, as well as less quantitative programming in PostGreSQL, Ruby/Rails, JavaScript, HTML, and a sprinkling of Python for good measure. The bibliometric work I’ve done on Identifying Early Modern Books was also fundamentally computational as is much of the work I’m doing on Death by Numbers (I’m not calculating with nearly a million numbers by hand!) And my newest project, the Bridges of Pittsburgh, will involve a variety of pre-existing softwares as well as probably some bespoke programming for the graph theory aspects. Some of these computational methods are clearly also quantitative, but not all of them.

Lastly, by my actual title and job description, I am a digital historian – for whatever contested definition we give for DH. Increasingly, I and my colleagues in the Pittsburgh area have been scoping DH and digital scholarship projects using the criteria of web-facing, which plays out interestingly against the other two terms I use above. By these definitions, the digital is often but not always computational. An Omeka exhibit or WordPress site is digital but not particularly computational (in either the quantitative or programmatic sense). And if we define digital as web-facing, then the computational is not always digital. An example of this disjunction could be found in any computational project that ends with a traditional article or monograph publication rather than a sustained digital project.

Cue Venn Diagram to visualize the way I’ve been thinking about these similarities and differences… c’mon, you knew this was coming, didn’t you? Venn

So where does this leave DH (and Humanities Computing, Quantitative History, and the like)? Not a clue, hence the reason I called this a “musings” post. This will certainly not be the last (virtual) ink spilled on this very-contested and interesting subject of definitions. In the meantime, I will continue to enjoy my liminality and try on adjectives to suit my research objectives of the moment – be they qualitative, quantitative, computational, digital, or something else entirely.