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Humanities Computing, Digital Humanities, and Computational Humanities: What’s In a Name

By Leah Henrickson.

MORI Building DIGITAL ART MUSEUM EPSON teamLab Borderless by rabbit_akra is licensed under CC BY 2.0


On 16 July 2019, Folgert Karsdorp, a postdoctoral research assistant at the Dutch Meertens Instituut, tweeted: ‘I’m thinking about developing a workshop/event/journal/community for computational research in the humanities that doesn’t exclude people with profound computational skills and knowledge. Who’s in?’[1] After a small wave of responses from enthusiastic followers, within a day Karsdop had created a website called entitled ‘Computational Humanities Research’, along with a corresponding Twitter account (@CoHuRe1). Karsdorp’s chosen shortened form of the name was CoHuRe (I use CH here).

CH was not met with unanimous welcome; digital humanities (DH) scholars from around the world rushed to express confusion and dismay at Karsdorp’s proposal. ‘So Digital Humanities is supposed to become Computational Humanities?’ wondered a German researcher. Another asked: ‘I mean…..is what we really need a space where computationally dense or “techie” people feel safe? I just….’ Twitter is, it’s worth noting, a particularly good place to eavesdrop on DH discussions. As Matthew Kirschenbaum identified in 2012, ‘Twitter more than any other technology or platform is—at the very moment when digital humanities is achieving its institutional apotheosis—the backchannel and professional grapevine for hundreds of people who self-identify as digital humanists.’[2] Twitter remains a digital agora for DH, and often offers a more up-to-date glimpse into the field than publications delayed by peer review. For this reason, tweets are used here as key primary sources for DH debates.

Given the backlash CH faced upon its suggestion, Frederik Elwer defended the need for such an area of study in a blog post titled ‘The sudden but consequential rise of the Computational Humanities’. Citing conversations with colleagues both in person and online, as well as personal experience at a recent DH event, Elwert argues that ‘we might as well distinguish between the “digital humanities” in a wide sense and the “computational humanities” as a more specialized, more radical sub- or neighbor discipline.’[3] In another blog post – this one consolidating a number of personal tweets – Joris van Zundert opines that ‘@CoHuRe1 seems to voice the unease under the computational savvy that there is a trend yet again to push computational heavy content and computation inclined people to the peripheries of the [DH] field.’[4] In short, those producing ‘computational heavy content’ are looking for a home: a home that they haven’t found in DH.

Those familiar with the history of DH may recognise CH’s evocation of DH’s past name: humanities computing (HC). In one Twitter thread about CH, a Dutch researcher asked how CH related to HC, and was met with uncertain responses. To understand how CH connects with HC, intentionally or not, one must look to the etymological history of DH. Debates about DH’s name and scope are longstanding and ongoing. The disciplinary diversity driving these discussions strengthens DH’s strong cross-disciplinary collaboration and emphasis on social justice and advocacy. However, DH’s emphasis on diversity has simultaneously led to feelings of exclusion amongst those engaging more with the ‘digital’ than the ‘humanities’.


From ‘Humanities Computing’ to ‘Digital Humanities’

To start, it’s worth considering how DH as a term came into being. To do this, we must consider its predecessor: HC. In a talk delivered at the University of Maryland in 2000, John Unsworth defined what HC was and was not. ‘Humanities computing is a practice of representation, a form of modeling or, as Wallace Stevens has it, mimicry,’ he began. ‘It is also […] a way of reasoning and a set of ontological commitments, and its representational practice is shaped by the need for efficient computation on the one hand, and for human communication on the other.’[5] For Unsworth, HC was not just using a word processor: it involved modelling humanities data (through, for example, catalogue records and relational databases), and making sense of that data through computational access and analysis. Ray Siemens and Christian Vandendorpe took a less rigid stance in a 2006 anthology, asserting that:

As a research area, humanities computing is best defined loosely, as the intersection of computational methods and humanities scholarship. […] More specifically, in activities of the computing humanist, knowledge representation manifests itself in issues related to archival representation and textual editing, high-level interpretive theory and criticism, and protocols of knowledge transfer – all as modelled with computational techniques.[6]

While still acknowledging modelling as a core activity of HC, Siemens and Vandendorpe broadened the field to include more general uses of computers for knowledge representation, interpersonal communication, and creative thinking.

The replacement of ‘humanities computing’ with ‘digital humanities’ is commonly said to have been prompted by a marketing decision by Blackwell Publishing. Susan Schreibman, Ray Siemens, and John Unsworth, editors of the prospective Companion to Humanities Computing, were encouraged to use a term that could appeal to a larger audience: hence the 2004 Companion to Digital Humanities.[7] Working from this, Kathleen Fitzpatrick observes in her reflection upon the field that ‘[d]igital humanities thus grows specifically out of an attempt to make “humanities computing,” which sounded as though the emphasis lay on the technology, more palatable to humanists in general.’ Yet ‘when many of us hear the term “digital humanities” today, we take the referent to be not the specific subfield that grew out of humanities computing but rather the changes that digital technologies are producing across the many fields of humanist inquiry.’[8] Matthew Kirschenbaum lists some other key events that led to the solidification of ‘digital humanities’ as a term: for example, the creation of the Alliance of Digital Humanities Organizations (ADHO) and the Digital Humanities Quarterly journal.[9]

Elsewhere, Kirschenbaum notes that ‘digital humanities’ actually appears to have been in use before Blackwell, with John Unsworth serving as the key proponent for the term.[10] Unsworth, then a faculty member at the University of Virginia, had helped draft a proposal for a new master’s programme: one whose title used language that:

would prove more efficacious, less fraught (avoiding, for example, any hint of competition with computer science), more compatible with the institution’s sense of itself and collective purpose (“digital media” doubtless seemed like a good fit for a school that had just invested heavily in media studies), and generally broader in its appeal and potential for rapid uptake. These are tactical considerations. While the degree program never materialized (it certainly never made it to SCHEV), the discussions generated by the process have proven influential. And the name stuck.[11]

The shift from HC to DH was, of course, not immediate. In a 2009 article in the third volume of Digital Humanities Quarterly (DHQ), Patrik Svensson writes that ‘[i]t is obvious that the term digital humanities, as used by the humanities computing community, often serves as an overarching denotation in book and journal titles, etc., while humanities computing is often used in the actual narrative.’[12] In another article from a year before, Robert Scholes and Clifford Wulfman question the implications of the newly-established ‘DH’ label following the first volume of DHQ. Scholes wonders ‘whether there are things that belong to one of these ways of naming the field and not to the other’ settling on DH being ‘a term designed to both include and replace “Humanities Computing” as the name for a set of activities that have not yet coalesced into a stable academic structure’.[13] To this, Wulfman adds questions of sustainability: ‘Most digital humanities acknowledge that theirs is a game for tenured faculty’, he observes. ‘[J]uniors risk their careers if they invest their time in creating digital scholarship instead of creating books.’[14] This is an issue that remains pertinent; the UK’s Research Excellence Framework, for example, doesn’t readily accommodate digital scholarship.

If HC was subject to definitional debates, DH is in the midst of definitional warfare. From 2009 to 2011, a ‘Day of DH’ was run by the University of Alberta. Day of DH participants were asked to ‘define Humanities Computing/Digital Humanities’. The results from all three years are collated online; just a peek at this list of definitions reveals a range of interpretations.[15] The search for a definition of DH even resulted in an entire volume entitled Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader, published in 2013.[16] One contributor to this volume likens the field – in both its HC and DC guises – to Auguste Rodin’s Gates of Hell.[17] To dive into hell itself, one need only look to the satirical Twitter accounts about DH that propose outlandish – but sometimes not that outlandish – definitions of the field.[18] Indeed, DH seems a hodgepodge of methods, approaches, and disciplinary perspectives, bound together more by individualised understandings of both ‘digital’ and ‘humanities’ rather than by a common objective or practice. There are, however, some somewhat common ideals shared by DHers, which are discussed in the ‘Diversity in Digital Humanities’ section below.


The Use of ‘Computational Humanities’

With DH being such an open-ended term, where did CH come from, and why? The term ‘computational humanities’ didn’t just creep from the crevices of Karsdorp’s mind. It had already been in use for some time, particularly in the German-speaking world. The 2nd Heidelberg Computational Humanities Summer School, for example, was coincidently underway when Karsdorp first tweeted about CH. The description of the Summer School on its website appears to use CH synonymously with DH.[19] Universität Leipzig is home to a ‘Computational Humanities Group’ based in its computer science department; this group likewise seems to synonymise CH and DH.[20]

There have been instances, though, where CH has been expressly distinguished from DH. The following excerpt from the Executive Summary of the 2014 Dagstuhl Seminar on ‘bridging the gap between Computer Science and Digital Humanities’ is worth quoting at length:

Obviously, despite the considerable increase in digital humanities research, a perceived gap between the traditional humanities and computer science still persists. Reasons for this gap are rooted in the current state of both fields: since computer science excels at automating repetitive tasks regarding rather low levels of content processing, it can be difficult for computer scientists to fully appreciate the concerns and research goals of their colleagues in the humanities. For humanities scholars, in turn, it is often hard to imagine what computer technology can and cannot provide, how to interpret automatically generated results, and how to judge the advantages of (even imperfect) automatic processing over manual analyses.

To close this gap, the organizers proposed to boost the rapidly emerging interdisciplinary field of Computational Humanities (CH). To this end, they organized a same-named Dagstuhl Seminar that brought together leading researchers in the fields of Digital Humanities and related disciplines. The seminar aimed at solidifying CH as an independent field of research and also at identifying the most promising directions for creating a common understanding of goals and methodologies.

At the core of the organizers’ understanding of CH is the idea that CH is a discipline that should provide an algorithmic foundation as a bridge between computer science and the humanities. As a new discipline, CH is explicitly concerned with research questions from the humanities that can more successfully be solved by means of computing. CH is also concerned with pertinent research questions from computing science focusing on multimedia content, uncertainties of digitisation, language use across long time spans and visual presentation of content and form.[21]

The papers included in this Dagstuhl Report situate CH closer to computer science than to the humanities, emphasising its greater dependence on more complex computational methods than DH typically accommodates. One contributor even presents a Venn diagram wherein CH and DH overlap, but the former is rooted within computer science traditions while the latter is rooted in humanities traditions.[22] A clear divide is established; while the two may interact, they’re distinct in their methodological and epistemological approaches.

All this is to say that Karsdorp’s proposal for CH is hardly novel. Instead, it stems from a longstanding dissatisfaction felt by more computationally-oriented folks who want to participate in DH projects, but don’t feel that DH accommodates their expertise. It represents, in essence, a return to the more rigid field of HC, perhaps even surpassing HC in its tendency towards ‘computational’ over ‘humanities’. By trying to include everyone, DH has excluded some of the very people integral to its foundation. These people are now trying to find where they belong in a field in constant flux.


Diversity in Digital Humanities

I noted above that there are some common ideals shared by DH practitioners. These ideals are of diversity within the field: both disciplinary and demographic. It was therefore not entirely unsurprising that some responses to Karsdorp’s proposal for CH acknowledged the potential gender issues arising from such a terminological change. One US-based academic noted that ‘We’ve been seeing this for awhile [sic], “serious” people peeling away from the more feminized corners of DH and giving their thing a new name. It’s a method of protecting prestige, which tracks closely with masculinization. Not new, although striking each time.’ To support this argument, another academic calculated the percentages of men and women to determine the gender balance of CH, finding that the list of supporters comprised 62 men (66%) and 31 women (33%). It should be noted, though, that these calculations to show CH’s  gender imbalance were made only four days post-Karsdorp post, when CH was still soliciting supporters to list on its website. CH continues to recruit supporters. To publish such a calculation prematurely assumes the composition of a group that is currently in the process of conscious recruitment and development.

Nevertheless, particularly in an instance of a group that is being consciously created, issues of gender, race, ethnicity, and other forms of social diversity are worthy of forthright conversation. Likewise, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that both HC and DH were originally the products of a community predominantly pale-skinned and phallic. One need only look to the course catalogue for the annual Digital Humanities Summer Institute, though, to see that DH is explicitly working towards inclusion and intersectionality. Offerings include, but are not limited to: Intersectional Feminist Digital Humanities; Digital Humanities for Japanese Culture; De-Colonizing Cultural Territories Online; and Queer Digital Humanities.[23] Additionally, there have been published criticisms of DH’s insufficient geopolitical, cultural, and linguistic diversity, which tend to make suggestions for improved practice. Such courses and critiques exemplify a pointed effort to institutionalise inclusion and overcome systemic exclusion of marginalised communities from discussions about the digital.

It’s somewhat ironic, then, that a field rooted in ideals of diversity and inclusion should react with such hostility to an effort to continue and nuance discussions by re-welcoming ‘techie’ individuals who have expressed feelings of being gradually pushed to DH’s peripheries. This hostility was particularly apparent in the aftermath of Nan Z. Da’s recent ‘Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies’, wherein Da criticises the use of computational literary studies, which she positions within the realm of DH, for what she feels are misuses of statistical methods and misinterpretations of statistical data.[24] The DH community hurried to respond, with commentaries published through various outlets – some within days of the article’s initial release.[25] Although many of these commentaries did accept Da’s criticism, others demonstrated greater effort to defend current activities than adapt practices in light of Da’s critique.[26] To be sure, both of these reactions depended upon critical reflection and pointed self-reflection. However, most of the responses to Da’s article acknowledged the disciplinary divide between Da and her readers. She situates the article within the realm of DH in its introduction, yet many DH readers felt as through their work was misrepresented.

This isn’t to say that concerns about the possible influence of alternative groups on future directions DH aren’t valid; these concerns need to be addressed so that engagement can move forward ethically and productively. Likewise, critical consideration of factors like disciplinary gender representation are valuable to (self-)reflections upon those communities with which many identify. However, asking whether ‘Digital Humanities is supposed to become Computational Humanities’, as did one Twitter user, is to ultimately misinterpret the circumstances that led to the formation of CH. Karsdorp wasn’t suggesting a name change, but a factional community for those who may have otherwise  felt unwelcome. Recall a similar effort: the very emergence of the term DH itself.

DH’s disciplinary diversity is one of its strengths, but it’s also one of its weaknesses. DH conferences span an overwhelming range of topics; the field itself lacks a common direction and set of methods; community members often have limited knowledge of technical functionality outside of that which is relevant to current projects. This doesn’t mean that DH is not worthwhile. Members of the DH community are, for example, bound by a set of common goals related to diversity and social justice; there are substantial opportunities for cross-disciplinary collaboration (for few DH-ers are in dedicated DH departments, instead housed in more traditional departmental homes). Yet there is also value in more specialised sub- and splinter groups. The Electronic Literature Organization, officially affiliated with the Digital Humanities Summer Institute, hosts an annual conference for makers and scholars of electronic literature. Computational linguistics has long constituted its own field of study. The International Conference on Computational Social Science, which just hosted its fifth annual meeting, is an opportunity for academic and industrial developers to learn from each other; one article defining computational social science explains that the field ‘leverages the capacity to collect and analyze data at a scale that may reveal patterns of individual and group behaviors.’[27] All of these specialties could be covered by the broader umbrella of DH. However, more specialised communities serve their own purposes for honing expertise. DH thinks big; these groups think smaller. We need both.



I don’t want to discount the importance of terminology, particularly in academic contexts. Terminology has very real implications for funding proposals, programme marketing, publication opportunities and acceptances, and curriculum modifications.  Willard McCarty has even written that ‘the future of digital humanities is a matter of words’.[28] However, the particular ‘computational humanities’ adjustment does not aim to overthrow the established ‘digital humanities’. Rather, it creates a new subsection that may in time be absorbed by digital humanities, but currently fills a gap that has long been sensed. When a researcher tweets ‘is what we really need a space where computationally dense or “techie” people feel safe?’, the answer should be a resounding yes.[29] The question that would be of greater value would perhaps be one focused on facilitating dialogue between specialist areas of expertise, working towards the kind of interconnectedness and inclusive marketability that the term ‘digital humanities’ itself emerged from. Instead of asking ‘do we need this?’, DH should be asking ‘what can we learn from this?’


[1] @FolgertK (Folgert Karsdorp), ‘I’m thinking about developing…’, Twitter (16 July 2019) <https://twitter.com/FolgertK/status/1151167545539477504> [accessed 16 July 2019]
[2]Matthew Kirschenbaum, ‘Digital Humanities As/Is a Tactical Term’, in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2012, ed. by Matthew K. Gold (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2012) <http://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/debates/text/48> [accessed 21 July 2019].
[3] Frederik Elwert, ‘#beyondDH: The sudden but consequential rise of the Computational Humanities’, A Belter’s Life (18 July 2019) <https://belter.hypotheses.org/64> [accessed 18 July 2019].
[4]Joris van Zundert, ‘Moving to Computational Humanities’, Brandaen’s Flow (19 July 2019) <http://jorisvanzundert.net/blogposts/moving-to-computational-humanities> [accessed 19 July 2019].
[5] John Unsworth, ‘What is Humanities Computing and What is Not?’, University of Virginia (5 October 2000) <http://www.people.virginia.edu/~jmu2m/mith.00.html> [accessed 26 July 2019].
[6] Ray Siemens and Christian Vandendorpe, ‘Introduction: Canadian Humanities Computing and Emerging Mind Technologies’, Mind Technologies: Humanities Computing and the Canadian Academic Community, ed. by Raymond Siemens and David Moorman (Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2006), pp. xi-xviii (p. xii).
[7] Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, ‘What Is Digital humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?’, ADE Bulletin, 150 (2010), 55-61 (pp. 56-57).
[8] Kathleen Fitzpatrick, ‘The Humanities, Done Digitally’, The Chronicle of Higher Education (8 May 2011) <https://www.chronicle.com/article/The-Humanities-Done-Digitally/127382> [accessed 21 July 2019].
[9] Kirschenbaum, ‘What Is Digital Humanities?’, 57.
[10] Kirschenbaum, ‘Digital Humanities As/Is a Tactical Term’.
[11] Kirschenbaum, ‘Digital Humanities As/Is a Tactical Term’.
[12] Patrik Svensson, ‘Humanities Computing as Digital Humanities’, Digital Humanities Quarterly, 3.3 (2009), [39] <http://www.digitalhumanities.org/dhq/vol/3/3/000065/000065.html> [accessed 26 July 2019].
[12] Robert Scholes and Clifford Wulfman, ‘Humanities Computing and Digital Humanities’, South Atlantic Review, 73.4 (2008), 50-66 (p. 59).
[13] Robert Scholes and Clifford Wulfman, ‘Humanities Computing and Digital Humanities’, South Atlantic Review, 73.4 (2008), 50-66 (p. 59).
[14] Scholes and Wulfman, ‘Humanities Computing’, 64.
[15] ‘How do you define Humanities Computing / Digital Humanities?’, University of Alberta <www.artsrn.ualberta.ca/taporwiki/index.php/How_do_you_define_Humanities_Computing_/_Digital_Humanities%3F> [accessed 26 July 2019].
[16] Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan, and Edward Vanhoutte, eds, Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader (Surrey: Ashgate, 2013).
[17] Edward Vanhoutte, ‘The Gates of Hell: History and Definition of Digital | Humanities | Computing’, in Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader, ed. by Melissa Terras, Julianne Nyhan, and Edward Vanhoutte (Surrey: Ashgate, 2013), pp. 119-156.
[18] @what_is_dh, Twitter <https://twitter.com/what_is_dh> [accessed 23 September 2019]. A more serious alternative at @DHDefined, Twitter <https://twitter.com/DHDefined> [accessed 23 September 2019].
[19] The 2nd Heidelberg Computational Humanities Summer School (2019) <https://hch19.cl.uni-heidelberg.de> [accessed 21 July 2019].
[20] ‘Computational Humanities’, University of Leipzig <https://ch.uni-leipzig.de> [accessed 21 July 2019].
[21] Chris Biemann, Gregory R. Crane, Christiane D. Fellbaum, and Alexander Mehler, eds, ‘Computational Humanities – bridging the gap between Computer Science and Digital Humanities’, Dagstuhl Reports, 1.1 (2014), 2 <https://cpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/u.osu.edu/dist/4/27964/files/2016/01/DagstuhlSeminarFinalReport-2a7n3h7.pdf> [accessed 21 July 2019].
[22] Gerhard Heyer, ‘3.1 Digital and computational humanities’, Dagstuhl Reports, 1.1 (2014), 8-9 <https://cpb-us-w2.wpmucdn.com/u.osu.edu/dist/4/27964/files/2016/01/DagstuhlSeminarFinalReport-2a7n3h7.pdf> [accessed 21 July 2019].
[23] ‘Courses’, Digital Humanities Summer Institute <http://dhsi.org/courses.php> [accessed 21 July 2019].
[24] Nan Z. Da, ‘The Computational Case against Computational Literary Studies’, Critical Inquiry, 45 (2019), 601-639.
[25] For example, Chris Beausang, ‘Some thoughts on Nan Z. Da’s ‘The Computational Case Against Computational Literary Criticism’ or; ‘Against Articles Beginning with the word ‘Against’’’, Medium (14 March 2019) <https://medium.com/@differengenera/some-thoughts-on-nan-z-17a12445eb3f> [accessed 25 July 2019].
[26] See, for example, J. Berenike Herrmann, Anne-Sophie Bories, Francesca Frontini, Simone Rebora, and Jan Rybicki, ‘Response by the Special Interest Group on Digital Literary Stylistics to Nan Z. Da’s Study’, Journal of Cultural Analytics (3 May 2019) <https://culturalanalytics.org/2019/05/response-by-the-special-interest-group-on-digital-literary-stylistics-to-nan-z-das-study> [accessed 26 July 2019].
[27] David Lazer, Alex Pentland, Lada Adamic, Sinan Aral, Albert-László Barabási, Devon Brewer, Nicholas Christakis, Noshir Contractor, James Fowler, Myron Gutmann, Tony Jebara, Gary King, Michael Macy, Deb Roy, and Marshall Van Alstyne, ‘Computational Social Science’, Science, 323 (6 February 2009), 721-723 (p. 721).
[28] Willard McCarty, ‘The Future of Digital Humanities Is a Matter of Words’, in A Companion to New Media Dynamics, ed. by John Hartley, Jean Burgess, and Axel Bruns (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), pp. 33-52.
[29] @profwernimont, ‘I mean…..is what we really need…’.

Leah Henrickson is a PhD candidate at Loughborough University. Her research aims to discern the social and literary implications of natural language generation and computer-generated texts. Popular publications about her research have been featured on such platforms as Future Tense (Slate)The Conversation, and minor literature[s], and she has published in such peer-reviewed journals as Digital Creativity and Authorship. Become her Twitter friend @leahhenrickson.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Thursday, October 24th, 2019.