Week 3: The Theories of History/The Theories of Digital History

Marshall McLuhan holding a mirror

Marshall McLuhan holding a mirror. ca. 1967. Library and Archives Canada (PA-165118)


Today’s meeting begins with a visit from Dr. John Dichtl, the Executive Director of the National Council on Public History.  Dr. Dichtl will discuss the field of public history and how digital humanities is helping to reshape the landscape.  The second half of our meeting examines the notion of “theory.”  We will discuss a variety of theoretical approaches that have direct bearing on the conceptualization and practice of digital public history.

Meeting Outline

I.  Visit by Dr. John Dichtl, Executive Director of the National Council on Public History (1 hr)
II.  Break (10 min)
III.  Discussion of readings (1 hr)
IV. Break (5 min)
V.  Discussion of readings (30 min)

Assignments (due before class)

  1. Blog Post: What is Digital History? (500 words)
  2. Weekly Twitter Assignment
  3. Weekly WordPress Comment Assignment

Required Reading

The readings this week focus on “theory.”  What historians mean when they invoke the term, “theory,” is varied and complex.  For some, it is any non-empirical approach the past.  For others, it is a metanarrative that drives historical interpretation.  Some use the term to describe various methodological approaches in history and other disciplines.  Depending on the historian, he or she may be more or less interested or engaged with theoretical discussions.  Nevertheless, all scholars use theoretical notions to guide their work, either implicitly or explicitly.

We might think of a theory as a model which helps us make sense of the many facts and interpretations that we come across as scholars.  Theories can be descriptive, analytical, or critical.

  • In descriptive theory, scholars build models which are meant to most closely reflect what they have observed in the past and predict what they will observe in the future.  As you can imagine, this mode of working is derived from the natural sciences and seeks to establish some sense of verifiable truth.
  • Analytical theory seeks to dissect the internal logic and inconsistencies of an approach or argument.  Analytic theory might even be concerned with examining theories of theories, or metatheories.
  • Critical theory, as its name implies, is focused on the critique of culture and society.  Critical theory might be hermeneutical, meaning that it seeks knowledge through the interpretation of human cultural productions such as books or music.  Critical social theory, on the other hand, critiques society — its injustices, inequalities, and inconsistencies — via a set of normative ethical values.  Rather than than simply seeking to describe the world (descriptive theory) or evaluate our arguments or propositions about that world (analytical theory), critical theory interprets and engages with that world in an effort to change it.

While you are reading , ask yourself what theoretical approaches the writers below are using to make their arguments.  How do their theories and methodologies shape their arguments?  What kinds of evidence are they using?  How do their arguments impact the practice of digital history/public history?

  • Karl Marx, “The Labour Process and Alienation in Machinery and Science” in The New Media and Technocultures Reader, 79-81.
  • Marshall McLuhan, “Selections from Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man” in The New Media and Technocultures Reader, 82-85.
  • Tara McPherson, “Why are Digital Humanities so White? or Thinking the Histories of Race and Computation” in Debates in the Digital Humanities, 139-60.
  • Bruno Latour, “The Proliferation of Hybrids” in The New Media and Technocultures Reader, 105-109.
  • “Interchange: The Promise of Digital History.” The Journal of American History 95, no. 2 (September 1, 2008): 452–491.
  • Jason M. Kelly, “An Ecology for Digital Scholarship (only the text, not the video).”


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