Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Methodological Transparency (Digital History Week 10)

For this week’s assignment, our class looked at “the call for methodological transparency in historical writing,” specifically as it pertains to print articles that involve digital components; more specifically, we looked at the costs and benefits of producing a metagraph in addition to digital projects and print articles based on born digital projects. But, why is this important? Personally, I think methodological transparency would help digital projects receive the same respect and recognition as traditional, print articles. Let me explain.

As we have already determined throughout the semester, as a growing field, digital history seeks to earn the same respect and consideration as traditional, print articles. To help establish digital history as a respectable element of academia, scholars have published print based on born digital projects like William G. Thomas III and Edward Ayers’The Differences Slavery Made: A Close Analysis of Two Communities and Camron Blevins’ “Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Houston.”  While these print articles help explain digital projects, they can still leave the reader wondering, how did the author reach these conclusions? For traditional historians who are used to relying on close readings of primary sources, perhaps explaining the methodological process and reasoning behind distant reading (and other methods of digital history) would help scholars see the value of digital projects.

For example, in their essay, “The Hermeneutics of Data and Historical Writing,” authors Gibbs and Owens pose the question, how can digital historians expect others to receive their new methodologies when the “new ways of working with data seem like a mysterious black box?” Considering this, they conclude that “the new methods used to explore and interpret historical data demand a new level of methodological transparency in history writing.” As part of explaining methodologies, Gibbs and Owen suggest that authors should be clear what their data implies and does not imply, how they interpret evidence, and how they intend to use their evidence. For example, with the opportunities created with digital technologies, data does not always have to be used as evidence; rather, it can also be used to create new research questions. For instance, according to Gibbs and Owens reveal that tools like Google NGrams can help promote the creation of new research questions.

A great example of this is Robertson’s Digital Harlem project. In a recent AHR Exchange, Sternfield criticized Robertson for not contributing a histiorographical argument to the scholarship on everyday life in Harlem. Robertson responded to this critique, saying, that “Digital Harlem is an opportunity to think about digital mapping as a research method, not as a means of making or illustrating arguments,” but as a way to investigate sources (AHR Exchange, 166). Considering this, I believe that a metagraph designed to complement Digital Harlem would have clarified the aims of the project and prevented the criticism it received due to methodological misunderstandings. Echoing this suggestion, Gibbs and Owens plainly state, “One way of reducing hostility to data and its manipulation is to lay bare whatever manipulations have led to some historical insight.”

One author who answered the call for methodological transparency is Cameron Blevins. In 2014, Blevins published “Space, Nation, and the Triumph of Region: A View of the World from Houston,” as a print article to share his findings from his spatial history research of late 19th century Houston. Then, in 2015, he published “Mining and Mapping the Production of Space” as the first digital methods essay (a metagraph) to be published as a supplement to a JAH article. Personally, I found his metagraph to be very useful and informative. Compared to his 2014 article, Blevins’ metagraph helped to contextualize the way he approached his methods; in his metagraph, Blevins explained each of his visualizations, the meanings behind them, and the way he interpreted them.
Perhaps the most insightful thing I found in his metagraph was the way he explained what exactly his map represented. For example, as Blevins sought to map the space created by the Houston Daily Post, he shares that his Occurrences of Place-Names in the Telegraph and Texas Register, 1836-1851 visualization is “not a comprehensive view of every place-name… but a measurement of how frequently selected places appeared: ‘a’ view of the world from Houston rather than ‘the’ view of the world from Houston.” He then shares how by counting every instance of place names, he was able to “flatten” the text and ignore context; for example, he shares that the word “Dallas” on the front pate headline was given the same weight as the word “Dallas” in a retail advertisement. Sharing these methodolgocial processes helped me to better understand the meanings behind the conclusions Blevins reached. By better understanding his conclusions, I am able to appreciate his scholarship much more!

            In conclusion, considering Gibbs and Owens insights, criticisms of Digital Harlem received, and Blevins’ metagraph, it becomes evident that a metagraph has many benefits. Metagraphs helps users understand the data, how it was used, and the conclusions it produced. Furthermore, metagraphs help protect authors from criticisms based on misunderstandings. Considering the cost of a metagraph, the only cost I can see is the time it takes to write a metagraph. Personally, though, I believe the cost is well worth the benefit of methodological transparency.

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