Qualitative Methods in Digital Humanities

At present Digital Humanities (DH) are a field strongly dominated by quantitative-oriented researchers (Quants). But many fields are still dominated by qualitative researchers (Qualis) and there are good reasons for that. Our aim must not be to turn analog Qualis into digital Quants, but rather to help each approach in order to integrate their unique skills in a more fully and diverse field of “Digital Humanities” that breaches the qualitative-quantitative divide.

What are Digital Humanities?

Digital Humanities is a growing field made up of people that in general see themselves at an intersection of humanities and computer sciences. They strive to create a unique value that is larger than its parts. Therefore, they see it as more than doing humanities with help of the computer and more than what computerised statistics has already done in the past. In practice, they often write programs, build large databases, create sophisticated XML text editions or run algorithms on data sets in order to analyse them. One could argue, they are the “Startups” and “big data analysts” of the humanities. They are a passionate and visionary group and develop (so far predominantly quantitative) digital methods and tools to elevate research in the humanities to the next level.

However, when we look at the remaining (shrinking?) majority of researchers in the humanities we mostly see qualitative researchers (“Qualis”) doing “analog” research. One often (implicitly) raised questions is, “How do we convert these analog Qualis into digital Quants?” We cannot, yes we even should not do that, I argue. Why? Because we will never turn Qualis into Quants and there are good reasons for the existence of both. And that brings us to what I am strongly missing in the current field of Digital Humanities as it presents itself on many conferences: qualitative researchers doing sophisticated digital analysis.

(Warning: Qualitative means to be interested in the specific and rare, instead of the general and plentiful. It does not imply that certain research is “good” or “bad”!)

The “confession” of Anneke Ratken (Rostock 1543): A nightmare for almost everyone, except for a Historian working on exactly that time and place.

Why do we need qualitative Digital Humanists?

Either I am blind on both eyes or these people are very good in making themselves invisible. While “Qualis” who are using digital analysis tools extensively are common in the social sciences at least since the 1990s (often under the term qualitative data analysis), I only rarely meet a “qualitative submarine” in DH-waters.

Of course, in order for digital methods and digital tools to take major ground in the humanities, we have to highlight the concrete added value. For example web scraping, a basic understanding of RegEx and any kind of scripting is useful for every researcher in the 21st century. But more importantly, we have to encourage qualitative researchers to participate in a digital field. Not just as a strategy to change the “traditional” humanities, but because they have valuable skills to offer.

Let’s take historical research as an example: In my eyes, there is a very good reason why historians have been practising predominantly qualitative methods for centuries. When we go back more than 300 years, sources not just become scarce but also extremely difficult to read, understand and interpret. That doesn’t mean that computers cannot master Cuneiform or Hieroglyphs, or are not useful for archaeologist, but when we find some common scrap paper in an archive, we often face terrible handwriting, with a quite unique language, used primarily during a short time period and in a very restricted area.

Even worse, we will need a ton of contextual knowledge in order to interpret any results properly. Yes, there are many use cases where quantitative methods as they are practised today (inside and outside the digital humanities) are the best choice and the appropriate way to go. But many cases remain where  just very few documents are available and they are terribly hard to read, understand or interpret. For these, developing sophisticated computerised tools and “big data” methods will often not be feasible, when an ape that spent decades on this stuff is readily at hand.

Cuneiform: Still a manageable scribe for a computer. (cc-by-SA Charon77 @WikiCommons )

What can digital qualitative research look like?

Qualis already use “digital” tools. Of course, they all use Word, Excel and Citavi. They search the entire internet, often flipping hundreds of (result) pages manually, looking for retro-digitzed sources or they smuggle their smart phone into the archive to take pictures of their precious material. Yet they do not frame themselves as “digital”.

The problem here lies not with the framing, but that many do not question how digital tools change their (presumably unchanged) methodology. What we need is that “Qualis” develop a digital perspective and voice. Instead of using “digital” because it sounds good in a research grant application, they must strive to reflect in detail on what they are doing.

On the other side, for DH developers this raises the question what support functions can target qualitative research explicitly. Tools to gather, organize and compare data are always helpful, on a macro and micro scale. For historians specifically, I see a large potential in bringing context information into closer proximity with the primary sources that are being analysed. Contextualisation is a tiresome task and no person can keep all the facts, events and names in mind that would enable and enrich the interpretation of any source. Here, an added value can be created by DH-developers that could help both, the progress of the “traditional” field and the establishment of DH as a discipline, a discipline that is not purely quantitative.


“Qualis” will not go away; and they will turn digital, one way or another. They can turn into digital ignorants using their smartphone to take a “screenshot” of a computer screen, or they can turn into sophisticated and well reflected “qualitative data analysts”. They can do their research outside of DH, doing what they always did, while still being digital citizens of the 21st century; or they can be more closely integrated into the present Digital Humanities community, turning it into something larger and fuller than it already is. In my eyes, developing the gap of qualitative Digital Humanities research carries great potential that we should not let go to waste.

Biographical post script:

Admittedly, I often feel myself as one of those “qualitative submarines” in DH-waters. I obviously love qualitative research, but I am at the same time very excited about DH. I know how to read Kurrent (old German handwriting), but I also know how to write my own Python scripts. I use quantitative methods to find the most relevant segments and analyse them qualitatively in depth. Therefore, I see myself at an intersection of quantitative and qualitative methods (often called “Mixed Methods”). I strife to be an ambassador for both: for establishing DH and for improving conventional (historical) research. If you share similar ideas, I would love to get in touch!


Cite this blog post
Andreas Mueller (2019, May 1). Qualitative Methods in Digital Humanities. Met-Hodos. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/rehh

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