Digital Humanities: Short Outline of a Theory of Practice

Pierre Bourdieu, Entwurf einer Theorie der Praxis. Auf der ethnologischen Grundlage der kabylischen Gesellschaft, Frankfurt am Main 1976 (French original 1972)

Review with respect to Digital Humanities

Preliminary remarks: I have tried to outline framework and parameters for the Digital Humanities in previous posts: the delegitimization of great storiesdecentration in the epistemes, the question of the place (lieux) and of the time (presence), the relevance of the media (book, documents, as well as other archival sources), of algorithms and (Big) Data and, finally, the notion of authorship and the conditions of production (Charles Leadbeater). I have also presented some examples for Digital History (Wolfgang Schmale, Kiran Klaus Patel, Swiss Academy of Humanities and Social Sciences, Google applications) and, finally, a comment from a specialist of a leading platform of the Digital Humanities to these questions.

It is time, to think about the theory of practice in the Digital Humanities. And who would be better suited as an inspiration to do this than Pierre Bourdieu.

The study of the formation of categories in the social sciences helped Pierre Bourdieu to his breakthrough as a well known social scientist. He had tried to describe a Berber tribe in Algeria with the help of scientific opposition chains, thus creating a cultural totality in the sense of structuralism – as he had learned it from Claude Lévy-Strauss.

But the 1,500 punch cards that he made, describing cultural and social traits of this group, gave not a logical whole, in any combination whatsoever. The structuralist theory found no model-based, consistent explanation for the empirical findings. Therefore, the practice must have its own logic and follow certain strategies. So, Bourdieu questioned the relationship of a theoretical model to practical sense in relation to the actors. He found that the rules of the model (the standard) are not simply followed, but interpreted according to the situation.

Based on his theory of practice, Bourdieu created a sociology, which has become famous for its concept of Habitus. The dispositions described in the Habitus structure the actions of the people involved. They adapt to the social field in which they come into play. They are the basis for continuity in our lives. What matters is that we grow into such a practice field. If we want to be successful, we need to invest, to acquire social and/or cultural capital. And when we want to invest, we must believe, be convinced that there is no other important field of action, as the one chosen. Its value must not be questioned. For the social success it is vital that the players do not know – deliberately? – what the logic in their field of practice is.

Bourdieu radically thinks relations. There are no ready-mades, but relationships that make up the things. This applies also for speaking and, one might add, writing. Both are performative, focused on social actions and contexts. Language is socially determined.

x x x

Reading Bourdieu means, almost, to acquire a guide to action (in science). For Bourdieu, the habitus and the practice are crucial. Thus, if you want to run Digital Humanities, just do it and be convinced of it. That means: develop the appropriate habitus with the help of the digital technologies. Already existing platforms for the Digital Humanities like OpenEdition show how this could work on the level of production and distribution. 

This is mainly a question of organization. The net revives pre-industrial organization and forms of cooperation such as the tradition of common resource pools (“commons”). This requires a nucleus around which the community is formed.  The necessary tools for participation must be provided and tasks must be divided into small chunks, around which subteams can be formed. It needs clear rules to bring together these modules again and a peer review for quality assurance of their results (see my post about Charles Leadbeater to this).

It will be interesting to see whether the rules for this new scientific field of practice tend to derive from the digital technologies rather than from the standards of the human and social sciences in the long term.

Wherein: it seems that the dice have already fallen, at least for the moment: the digital technology, resources and logic dominate the definition of this field of practice today. But “If the humanities are to thrive and not just exist in niches of privilege, they will have to visibly demonstrate the contributions to knowledge and society they are making in the digital era”, as a book of the Massachusetts Institute ofTechnology (MIT) impressingly demonstrates (please see my separate post to this).

Note: Please find here the link to other interesting post about the devolopment of a practice in the Digital Humanities: Beitrag im Dreiertakt #dhiha5 and The Philosophy of the Digital Humanities.

Cite this blog post
Guido Koller (2012, July 13). Digital Humanities: Short Outline of a Theory of Practice. We think History. Retrieved April 18, 2024, from

Guido Koller

Senior Historian, Swiss Federal Archives, CH-3003 Berne, Switzerland

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  1. Pingback: Digital Humanities: Short outline of a Theory of Practice - Hypotheses | EDUCACIÓN Y UNO QUE OTRO TIC |

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