Digital History as an Aid

In the past few years and definitely throughout my degree program, my professors have been doing their best to argue that anthropology is an interesting, vital, helpful, ever-changing, and unique field. This makes sense because as a major in anthropology, the majority of my professors have been anthropology professors. Luckily, I have also had some professors who have argued for taking an interdisciplinary approach, explaining that in order to fully understand a culture, we need to know about their past, their economic system, their language, and so on. In addition to encouraging my love for history, hence my minor, I strongly believe it helps to root the anthropology we do and makes it more valuable and meaningful.

This is kind of the way that I see digital history and the way I understand the readings that I did this week. Digital history is not separate from “academic” history, nor is it better than regular old university history. Rather, as Graham, Milligan, and Weingart explain, digital history as expressed through the ideas of the macroscope and its application to “big data”, allow us to explore much larger amounts of information at once through a variety of different lenses. The example focusing on the Old Bailey records explains this well. Using various data analysis and mapping programs that I do not yet understand, the data can show and be combined with almost countless other data sets to really broaden the picture of any particular criminal case. The posting on Historyonics: Big Data for Dead People illustrates this further as the author explains how by focusing on the case of one women within a big data set, he was able to gain a fuller understanding of all sorts of trends about the prison system, politics, publishing, women and so much more.

However, classmates bethanypehora and sarahmcole rightly raise concerns about the over-reliance and misinterpretation of the use of big data. They stress that big data is useful when used alongside micro histories.  JW Baker’s blog post about soft digital history and sarahmcole’s clarification of his argument support this position and speak to the ways that  I am beginning to understand the usefulness of digital history.

I am excited to be taking this class. Originally, I was not quite sure what it would entail, but chose it because it was a summer course that could accommodate my coop placement by being online. Delving into the material this week, I see that the class will be much more technical than I had realised. Coming from a family of open-source, Linux users, I should be more tech savvy, but I am not. I am interested in learning, but my current experience ends with basic computer and internet literacy and a vague ability to use the terminal function when prompted by more technologically-gifted family members.

My interests in history heavily tie into my love of anthropology and I argue that in order to do good anthropology, historical awareness is key. I enjoy cultural history focusing on people and their everyday lives and really enjoy documentaries such Victorian Farm. I can see that an analysis of big data would be very useful in public history projects such as this.

I am excited to be learning new ways to think about data and the relationships between events, people, historical trends, and places. These emerging technologies and ways of questioning how academics operate will help me to become a more inquisitive and explorative anthropologist as well. I am sure it will open up new doors and career opportunities as well.

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