By Michael J. Kramer | September 27, 2012
using the spreadsheet to connect evidence to argument.
For most humanists, spreadsheets makes their eyes glaze over. There is even an ominous sense of imprisonment: one must literally put ideas into cell blocks. The database would seem to limit the subtlety and dexterity of humanistic analysis in problematic ways. It insists on squeezing the messy realities of life, ideas, emotions, practices, art, and expression into neat rows and columns. Metaphorically speaking, we go from the diverse architecture, natural topography, and even entropy of the world to a system of standardization: from undulating hills, inventive buildings, and people in all their strangeness to parking lots, faceless office towers, and cubicles of corporate capitalism in its most terrifying structural forms. Everything must fit, regardless of its size, shape, inner dimensions, or odd configurations. Standard deviation is allowed, but not just plain old deviation, and certainly not deviance. Such is the age of “big data” in its most troublesome dimensions.
But what if the table could be put to use for humanistic analysis? Developing “good” data can undergird new searches for patterns, visualization, and algorithmic analysis. But there is an additional way that tables might be useful: not as the platform for statistical manipulation or coded patterning, but as a bridge between evidence and argument.
This is a simpler—deceptively simpler—use of the table, one that seeks to move beyond the drift toward positivist dreams found in the use of big data systems analysis for digital humanities.
In my Digitizing Folk Music History course, students used the WordPress plugin WP-Table Reloaded not only as the underlying structure for computational operations to create visualizations, maps, and other representations of information, but also as a bridge between evidence and argument. The table became a notetaking device, a way to make annotations and comments about digitized text, image, sound, and video and start to turn these detailed observations into a larger interpretation. The table became a vehicle for transitioning from evidence to what to make of that evidence. First, it took the student more deeply into the object being scrutinized. Then, in bringing the student more deeply into engagement with evidence, the table sent out a structure—a pathway—for the student to step up as they reached toward a more nuanced assessment.
Working with tables, students (you could write researchers here too) were not merely writing metadata of a digital collection in the strict sense: they were developing an extended line of meta-metadata that was transitioning out from the evidence to analysis. Supporting this process, the table served (fittingly for its shape) as a crucial building block. It was situated at that mysterious point between discoveries and findings, observations and conclusions.
It is this space, I believe, where digital humanists truly have something to contribute to the interdisciplinary study of the world. But without more focus on this area, the field risks becoming merely a subset of computer science. The question is: how might the digital enhance the step from a body of evidence to an interpretation that places that evidence in conversation with existing arguments and interpretations?