Paul Wouters, Anne Beaulieu, Andrea Scharnhorst, and Sally Wyatt, eds. Virtual Knowledge: Experimenting in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2013. ISBN 9780262018395 (hardcover), 9780262517911 (paperback).

Paul Wouters, Anne Beaulieu, Andrea Scharnhorst, and Sally Wyatt, eds. Virtual Knowledge: Experimenting in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 2013. ISBN 9780262018395 (hardcover), 9780262517911 (paperback).

Alexander Christie: achris@uvic.ca


Abstract / Résumé

Scholars involved in digital projects are witnessing a radical transformation in scholarly communication, knowledge representation, and collaborative practices, with an increased emphasis on interdisciplinarity. This sea-change in how scholars conceive of, undertake, and communicate their research is often registered in the perceived relation of the digital humanities to the humanities as a whole. However, the scope of rapid transformation in scholarly practice and interdisciplinarity is much larger than the digital humanities alone suggests, reaching across the humanities and social sciences, reconfiguring disciplinary formations, and revealing new contact zones between academic research and communities involved in policy making, data-driven corporate research, and social networking. Undertaking the dynamics of new interdisciplinary formations not only as its focus, but also through its breadth of coverage, Virtual Knowledge offers an empirical study of what practices, procedures, and power dynamics change (or remain unchanged) when emerging digital methods contact established disciplinary and institutional models.

Les universitaires qui participent à des projets numériques remarquent une transformation radicale au niveau de la communication, de la représentation du savoir et des pratiques de collaboration érudites, avec une emphase accrue sur l’interdisciplinaire. Ce changement profond dans la façon dont les universitaires conçoivent, entreprennent et communiquent leurs recherches se manifeste souvent dans la relation entre les humanités numériques et les humanités dans leur ensemble. Cependant, le champ d’application de la transformation rapide des pratiques érudites et de l’interdisciplinarité s’étend beaucoup plus loin que les seules humanités numériques, rejoignant les humanités et les sciences sociales, reconfigurant les formations disciplinaires, et découvrant de nouvelles zones de contact entre la recherche académique et les collectivités impliquées dans l’élaboration des politiques, la recherche d’entreprise fondée sur les données et le réseautage social. En entreprenant la dynamique de nouvelles formations interdisciplinaires non seulement comme son objectif mais aussi par l’ampleur de sa couverture, Virtual Knowledge présente une étude empirique des pratiques, procédures et dynamiques de pouvoir qui changent (ou qui restent immuables) lorsque de nouvelles méthodes numériques entrent en contact avec des modèles disciplinaires et institutionnels établis.

KEYWORDS / MOTS-CLÉS

Interdisciplinarity; scholarly communication; project development; humanities; social sciences; e-science



Scholars involved in digital projects are witnessing a radical transformation in scholarly communication, knowledge representation, and collaborative practices, with an increased emphasis on interdisciplinarity. This sea-change in how scholars conceive of, undertake, and communicate their research is often registered in the perceived relation of the digital humanities to the humanities as a whole. However, the scope of rapid transformation in scholarly practice and interdisciplinarity is much larger than the digital humanities alone suggests, reaching across the humanities and social sciences, reconfiguring disciplinary formations, and revealing new contact zones between academic research and communities involved in policy making, data-driven corporate research, and social networking. Undertaking the dynamics of new interdisciplinary formations not only as its focus, but also through its breadth of coverage, Virtual Knowledge offers an empirical study of what practices, procedures, and power dynamics change (or remain unchanged) when emerging digital methods contact established disciplinary and institutional models.

Drawing from a range of case studies, both contemporary and historical, the chapters that comprise Virtual Knowledge chart instances of institutional and infrastructural change as it registers at the site of emerging interdisciplinary methods. As the editors state in the introduction: "Virtual knowledge is strongly related to the notion that knowledge is embedded in and performed by infrastructures" (2013, 12). Uniting digital work across the humanities and the social sciences under the practice of e-science, the book deploys the term "virtual knowledge" to call explicit attention to the entanglement of knowledge work and the material contexts in which such work operates. The editors explain: "We approach e-research empirically, combining our commitment to study practice and use with attention to the power and transformative potential of the virtual. To address the virtuality of knowledge empirically means that we consider the very actual, material, institutional implications of such potential" (2013, 11). Grounding its analyses of how virtual knowledge functions in specific case studies, this edited collection offers a view of changing interdisciplinary models that effectively balances specificity with breadth.

Because it focuses primarily on the impact of digital scholarship at the level of institutions, infrastructures, and disciplines, Virtual Knowledge perhaps most readily appeals to project managers and primary investigators working in the humanities and the social sciences. However, those working in interdisciplinary and inter-institutional settings, as well as scholars who practice collaborative or public-facing work, will also find relevant issues covered in its pages. This collection not only makes a case for the transformative potential emerging within disciplinary practices, but also the transforming role of academic disciplines in relation to governmental, corporate, and socially networked institutions.

The first two essays in the collection (25-88) take up the everyday dynamics of virtual knowledge, focusing on the role of infrastructure in consolidating expertise and the role of affect in scholarly collaboration. "Authority and Expertise in New Sites of Knowledge Production" (25-56) examines instances in which digital projects reinscribe institutional hierarchies and in some cases radically disrupt them. Of concern here is how power dynamics are embedded in digital project infrastructures, whether the addition of electronic work shifts control toward those with technical expertise, whether pre-existing hierarchies are instead maintained by the project, and how social knowledge environments offer new forms of validating and circulating scholarly research. This chapter draws from three case studies: the deployment of The Museum System software package to create a networked imaged database at the Tropenmuseum, the use of Flickr by researchers studying graffiti, and the inter-institutional relationships involved in developing the city of Maastricht’s cultural biography. Drawing from these three instances, the contributors suggest that "To see expert knowledge as necessarily located in traditional institutional sites, and folksonomies as new sites of knowledge production standing outside expertise (and leading to knowledge that is multiple open to alternatives, and deliberative) is to set up a false dichotomy" (2013, 50).

The second essay, entitled "Working in Virtual Knowledge" (57-88) similarly considers the role of affective work in scholarly collaboration and project development. It constructs a taxonomy of affective scholarly labour, emphasising the role of coordination and logistical development (categorised as "articulation work") as invisible labour. The contributors note that "since this type of work is rarely visible, extra coordination efforts are often not covered in the budget of a collaborator, and many funding agencies do not recognize the actual costs incurred—a phenomenon that has also been observed in other academic collaboratories" (2013, 72). Taking a different approach, the essay that follows offers an empirical look at the role of uncertainty in knowledge representation, examining historical classification schemes, simulations, and world models that have attempted to account for uncertainty. It concludes with a brief look at contemporary interfaces, interactions, and models, suggesting that "in the short term, we need experimental interventions in which critical analysis is combined with design" (2013, 121).

The following two essays shift focus from the dynamics of scholarly research to emerging inter-institutional formations. "Virtually Visual" (127-149) considers the role of Geographic Information Systems (GIS) in governmental policy-making decisions. Making the case for GIS as a form of visual rhetoric, which is strategically deployed by institutions to make arguments, the essay examines the masking of margin of error and the non-academic perception of GIS as making truth claims. The case studies cover a range of issues, including the centralisation of tracking livestock diseases in Germany in the Friedrich-Loeffler-Institut (FLI), the use of high-water and flood information systems to impede municipal housing development high-risk areas in the Netherlands, and controversy surrounding the analysis of particulate matter in the Netherlands. Across these instances, the contributors explain how the persuasive use of GIS visualisation in public-facing environments can either foster organisational integration or fragmentation (depending on the interests of the organisations involved). As they write: "studies of visual culture bring into focus qualities attributed to the visual component of GIS, while insights from policy studies can show how the actual implementation of GIS affects both organizational structures and GIS themselves" (2013, 128). This chapter effectively demonstrates how the rhetorical visuality of GIS has significantly changed the dynamics of organisational interaction and policymaking in Germany and the Netherlands.

Turning from changing organisational interactions to changing disciplinary configurations, "Sloppy Data Floods or Precise Social Science Methodologies?" (151-182) examines the trend toward data-intensive research in the social sciences. In the field of sociology, the contributors examine how new sources and volumes of data are disrupting existing disciplinary methods; in the field of economics, they explore how the use of neural imaging to track the role of behaviour in economic decision-making is similarly transforming research methods. The essay puts forth a tentative argument about the role of perceived crisis in the humanities and the social sciences, suggesting that crisis expresses the potential for radical change at the same time as that change requires reconceiving of established disciplinary boundaries. This transformative process requires the blending of theoretical models with scientific methods and the use of theory to contextualise the impact of research findings.

The final two chapters turn more explicitly to future trends in scholarly practice. "Beyond Open Access" (183-218) examines the rise of electronic platforms for publishing and disseminating scholarly articles and monographs. It surveys a selection of online academic journals, academic blogs and the scholarly use of social networking platforms. Furthermore, this piece considers the potential for multimodal communication online to radically expand the audiences and contexts among which scholarship circulates, suggesting: "With the aid of digital media, modes of informal scholarly communication are encountering much larger audiences, even when compared against open access to journal articles and books" (2013, 191-192). The final essay, "Virtual Knowledge in Family History" (219-250), looks at disciplinary change through a historical lens, outlining past changes in the field of family history, including the practice of cliometrics and the turn towards visualisation. The contributors deploy the concept of "research dreaming," defined as: "an elaborate discursive sketch of the future state of the field that is contingent on the presence of particular conditions" (2013, 221). Recapitulating the concept of virtual knowledge, this essay examines how the articulation and circulation of research dreams in the field of family history demonstrated proposed future practices and infrastructures. Concluding the book, it advocates a meta-critical awareness of current disciplinary changes by looking at research proposals as tacit articulations of the potential for future disciplinary evolution through present desires.

Taken as a whole, the chapters that compose Virtual Knowledge sketch a patchwork view of the interdisciplinarity in the humanities and the social sciences, while gesturing toward ways of outlining disciplinary futures. The empirical approach taken throughout keeps this view grounded through case studies that are both interesting and informative. However, at times the book seems more interested in making outlines than arguments, more comfortable articulating taxonomies than advocating change. Some pieces may seem a bit removed from current practices in the digital humanities, while the overview provided by others may strike some as reducing the full complexity of changing methods and practices in certain disciplines. Since the collection takes a broad look at institutional and infrastructural (re)configurations, with emerging digital methods as interdisciplinary catalysts, there is nevertheless much of value here for those working in the digital humanities.

As the book progresses, a tacit argument about the function of interdisciplinarity begins to emerge. When previously separate disciplines combine methods, or when innovations in an emerging field disrupt existing practices, hybrid approaches increase the potential reach and impact of new knowledge work. This large-scale trend is observed at the level of individual projects, demonstrating that "Detailed study of these patterns of innovation actually yields more interesting results than the more abstract discussion about the future of e-research in general" (2013, 172). This collection invites scholars to blend theory with praxis, circulating scholarship through institutions and infrastructures outside the academy, and recognising the potential for improved forms of knowledge work that exists in radical disciplinary change.

Valid XHTML 1.0!



Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.