SOCHA, American Orthodox History, and the Digital Humanities

In the last several years, the discipline known as the “Digital Humanities” has come to the fore.  Digital Humanities is basically the intersection of the humanities and digital technology, for all the breadth that can mean, but often involves meta-data (data about data, if you will).  One of the sub-disciplines in the digital humanities field is digital history.

Digital history has generally meant using digital tools to help analyze historical source materials, though this can be done in different ways, from digital archives and interactive maps to text mining (assessing a text for patterns, perhaps of place-names or certain verbal structures).  By virtue of this blog and our associated Journal of American Orthodox Church History, SOCHA is certainly involved in digital history.  Furthermore, we intend to establish an online digital archive that will be searchable.  It will take time for this to occur, of course, but it is our full intention to work toward that.

That said, there are some areas of caution that one ought to have when thinking about digital history.  This recent blog post by Stanley Fish gets at one way in which text mining can be problematic:

Essentially, Mr. Fish notes the problem of omitting contextual considerations.  It is too tempting for people in the digital humanities to perform their search, find some pattern of something or other and then make a bold claim.

I think he’s spot on, and even more so when applied to digital history.  It is a temptation in history generally.  It is difficult sometimes for historians not to confuse trivia with history.  Already, historians, especially new (young) historians, find a unique little snippet only to be faced with the challenge of confronting that initial excitement with the prospects of context.  That is, what is the ultimate significance of that snippet?  What does it tell us about American Orthodox Church history, for instance, or religion in American more generally in the nineteenth century, etc.?  That is, the contextual questions are there to keep the historian honest and avoid a myopic vision.  Text mining, though, as noted by Mr. Fish, is already beginning to make the temptation of mistaking trivia for history all too real.  The larger contextual and theoretical questions are sometimes pushed aside all too easily.

So, are we at SOCHA part of the problem?  I don’t think so.  I realize any singular blog post, taken on its own, could certainly seem to be analogous to the context-less argument from text mining, but I think if one realizes that the blog entry ought to be seen within the context of the blog as a whole, and really in the context of SOCHA’s work as a whole, all is well.  Matthew Namee and I have both written on early jurisdictional issues.  We also have JAOCH, which often deals with larger American-Orthodox historical concerns.  It is true that JAOCH is “narrow” in that it is concentrated on certain ecclesiastical histories, but it still requires the articles to be grounded in the larger histories of those various churches.  Also, when we do finally, some year down the road, unveil our digital, searchable archive, the intention will be to further the use of source material and not simply to encourage “pattern finding.”  There is much that digital history has to offer, but in keeping with the concerns raised by Mr. Fish, it is our hope and belief that SOCHA will be part of a creative but historically honest and grounded use of digital technology.

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