Crossing Disciplines

In my last post, I wrote about the limits of academic writing, and asked what to do when scholarly forms are insufficient.

This week, inspired by a talk by Elijah Meeks at the TXDHC conference (that’s «Texas Digital Humanities Consortium conference), I am writing about interloping. What do you do when you find your work encroaching on someone else’s discipline?

This is a problem that I’ve been dealing with a lot recently. The research that I’m conducting came out of comparative literature, but it took a sudden left turn into anthropology, history, and information sciences when I started working in archival studies. I am an interested and educated outsider, but I am an unauthorized participant in these disciplines.

Interloping is also characteristic of the digital humanities, which is by definition interdisciplinary. Digital humanities scholars are usually well trained in their home discipline, but often use tools for both analysis and communication that are borrowed from more scientific or mathematically oriented disciplines. (I have written about some of those tools in a companion post.)

As a result, scholars in the digital humanities (or interlopers, generally) are subject to certain kinds of backlash. Some of this is reactionary and fueled by fear of disruption and a desire to preserve the status quo. Only a degree in the discipline or an extremely thorough bibliography will help to dispel this kind of response.

Other reactions are more carefully considered. Without proper training, interlopers can easily misuse methodologies and make inaccurate interpretations, finding truth where a professional might find only white noise.

It is easy, for example, to build a digital network which is statistically meaningless, because most user-friendly interfaces create the illusion of results regardless of how good they are.

It is also easy, for example, to make historical claims without providing sufficient evidence from primary sources. (I’ve done this.)

Or to conduct anthropological studies that reflect little more than observer bias. (And I’ve done this.)

Or to attempt a literary critique that fails to engage with current analytic approaches. (I’ve critiqued this, elsewhere.) As one person said to me this weekend: sometimes the digital humanities is just an excuse to return to theoretical frameworks from the 1950s.

In my own research, I have found interloping to be one of the most exciting ways to find new approaches to textual analysis. At conferences like TXDHC, it is the interlopers who produce the most exciting content.

I wonder: what kind of interloping do you find useful? And how do you ensure that you interlope ethically?

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