cultural or humanistic informatics complications

Jeremy Hunsinger's picture


Digital humanities…. many will remember when it was Computing in the Humanities and it still is for many projects and at many places.  For a very short period while people were talking about e-Humanities.  The umbrella term seems to have become "digital humanities" which has a particular genealogy worth exploring, though not in this post.  Instead this post is about the intersection and mediation of the idea of digital humanities and media studies by adding to the debate with the idea that what we have is less of terminological or mereological problem between media studies and digital humanities, but is instead at least a tripartite complication between media studies, digital humanities and cultural or humanistic informatics

Cultural informatics is the broadest term for what the humanities does with computers according to Gregory Crane's seminal paper, but for me, cultural informatics is by necessity more reflexive and situated then informatics in general.  I contend that the idea of a cultural informatics is ripe for exploration as a way of launching a transdisciplinarily orientation into the fields of media studies and digital humanities.

Elsewhere I have defined cultural informatics as:

Cultural Informatics is the application and understandings of information technology in the broadest senses of cultures and cultural institutions.(2007)

which I expanded with:

To that end, it deals with understandings of culturally centered information, cultural heritage, cultural communities, the transmission of information through cultures and relations between culture and information technology. While there are productive, design and creative elements to cultural informatics, that design has to be understood as constructed within a rich cultural milieu, and situated as such as part of a process to generate understanding within and across cultures. Cultural informatics must continually be reflexive and critical of the systems we create and participate in order to generate new possibilities that will work across cultural domains. It is not enough to build the tool, we build the tool in a culture, and we build cultural and political assumptions into that tool which have clear implications for the positioning of cultures, peoples, and technologies.(2007)

As we can see, cultural informatics builds tools and systems, but unstated above is that all those things that it begets, including its own conceptualiztion, also build or contribute to cultures. Thus in my definition and its expansion, it is heavily invested in the reflexive understanding of the informatics in culture.  This is very much like the perspectives found in many modes of media studies, which relies heavily on understanding the plurality of contexts surrounding the media that it studies.  But new/old media studies is not really digital humanities nor is it really cultural informatics because it deals with things that are not digital, nor necessarily informatically oriented.  Media studies is more expansive than either.  Similarly digital humanities, with its narrow focus on the digital and current tendencies toward the construction of digital media to serve the humanities, does not really encompass the direction of media studies, nor cultural informatics.  Cultural informatics, as I have argued does encompass elements of both fields, but again extends beyond them as my definition indicates.  

The challenge of all of these fields and academic disciplines is not terminological or mereological though, the real challenge is the slow vacillations between the imaginations of academic inter/disciplines and fields as facile institutional constructs and the imagination of them as longstanding traditional disciplines.  This challenge, I argue should not seek resolution through the construction of a new identity that encompasses all but instead should be including more constructs that span the identities, such as cultural informatics, which through their inclusion will allow a re-imagination of the fields towards transdisciplinarity and a transdisciplinary politics of knowledge.


Image on front page by quapan and available on Flickr. 


Jamie Henthorn's picture


I see a lot of connections between your argument here and the argument that Miram Posner made earlier in this survey. She sees the way that theory can complicate the digital. She argues theory complicates digital humanities in a good way. Cultural informatics seems to have the same ability to complicate assumptions within digital humanities from a cultural perspective. I will have to spend some time getting to know more about cultural informatics.