Empirical turn in the Humanities? The Frankfurter Allgemeine on the results of the Hamburg conference

Digital tools and methods become more and more important in the Humanities. The Frankfurter Allgemeine, a leading journal in Germany, sees “the end of the hermeneutical individual research” coming. The computer based processing of huge data bases allows researchers totaly new approaches to and in their field of studies. But a prerequisite for this is the development and maintenance of – rather expensive – research infrastructures (digitization, data management, data archiving). In Germany, the politicians seem to be ready to take this new situation into account and to draw the (financial) consequences.

The German Digital Humanities, “inspired by this gain on importance”, met for their annual meeting in Hamburg, 16 – 22 July 2012. Digital Humanities are not “a fixed disciplin of research, but a specific field of methods”, the journal explains; and: Their “headwater” are computer based linguistic and philology as well as computer sciences in their respective disciplines. They can be seen as “technical auxiliary of the Humanities”, according to the Frankfurter Allgemeine.  This work on infrastructure should be recognized as an independent research performance, the journal agrees with the German Wissenschaftsrat (Science Council).

The conference in Hamburg offered a comparison of methods and a look at the whole field of the emerging practice: the trend towards quantification and towards crowdsourcing, modellation and visualizition of huge data group and structures. A big issue are the geographical information systems (GIS) and their possibilities for the humanities.

The organizers of the conference proclaimed “the empirical turn in the Humanities”: also here, they say, the era of projects and working in teams has begun. This contrasts, within a part of the conference participants, with the fear “of the import of a reductive, non-objective thinking”, into the Humanities in front of a computer industry that dictates the methods. Anyway: the question, whether the Digital Humanities see themself – application-oriented – as a support towards human and social sciences, rather than as “the spearhead of a full transformation of the Humanities” will remain an open one probably for still quite some time.


Guido Koller

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

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