Narratives or data: What are the goals of Digital History?

When discussing the development of digital history as a medium for delivering academic information to a wider audience, it is necessary to reflect on the details of how history has traditionally been presented. Between questioning whether or not the use of narrative is methodologically and theoretically sound or whether history is considered a subfield of the humanities or social science, we need to find time to reflect on how academics define history in the first place. The utilization of digital media as an avenue for the dissemination of history has clearly experienced change over the past couple decades. It may be evident to historians that digital media is a useful tool for making academic information more accessible, but the inward focused, self-reflexive nature of these readings is a necessary precursor to interacting with a public audience.

Questioning whether or not the use of narrative in the historical record is a viable method reminded me of one of the most influential theorists in the field of anthropology. White’s question of whether historical narrative is appropriate was remarkably similar to Clifford Geertz’s question of what was more appropriate for ethnographic analysis and anthropology – description or narrative. Published roughly a decade apart, both of these works examine whether or not storytelling is an appropriate method of documenting information. It seems worth noting that this parallel exists when another question being asked is whether history fits into either the humanities or social sciences. Rosenzweig claims that historians are used to working by themselves in isolation. Comparatively, social scientists are in a position to question every decision they make within academia as their work inherently affects the public. Before we can answer whether or not narrative is an appropriate methodological approach, shouldn’t we be questioning how history can be informed by both academic divisions?

Regardless of whether we think that information should be made digitally accessible, we must consider ethical ramifications. As Rosenzweig states, one potential problem is that it widens the gap between populations that have access to digital media and those who do not. Also, if we rely on story-telling or narrative as a method of transmission, whose voice is used to tell the story? Are we tiptoeing into territory where information may belong to a particular social class even though we have taken it out of academia? Are we appropriating a population’s history because we think it should be made available? How much input and feedback should we receive prior to making knowledge available? Can historic knowledge be used as propaganda to further an agenda? Are we leaving out pertinent information based on what we, as academics, think is important?

One of the critiques of FiveThirtyEight was that because information is traveling so much more quickly, that instant gratification compels people to want an immediate answer to their questions. However we decide to make knowledge available, whether through unbiased, raw data or compelling narrative, the presence of accessible information should not only serve to answer an existing question. Rather, public access to knowledge should incite more questions among its audience similar to the questions that are being asked within academia.


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