Adapting Social Science Methods to Humanities Research

Today I will be co-convening a session with Ray Siemens at the Modern Language Association’s annual conference on the topic of using and adapting research methods typically associated with social sciences to research in the humanities. Our panelists include colleagues Eric Meyer (OII), Lindsay Thomas and Dana Solomon (UC Santa Barbara), James Kelley (Mississippi), and Lynne Siemens (University of Victoria).

Holders of digital collections are increasingly asked to demonstrate their impact as they seek additional resources for maintenance and growth, but their training as experts in the humanities content of the collections has not often included the social science and measurement skills needed to understand uses. Technological advances in the humanities have led to a re-envisioning and re-interpreting of traditional approaches and presents an opportunity to enlarge and extend methodological practice with the inclusion of new disciplinary approaches (see Siemens 2010). However, researchers using social science methods must move beyond their disciplinary training into “unmarked” territory, often with limited disciplinary support or guidance (see Collins, Bulger, and Meyer 2012). Some literary scholars are employing social science methodologies such as interviews, ethnographies, surveys, and statistical data analysis in their research (some examples include: Galey and Ruecker 2010; Siemens et al. 2009; Hoover 2008). Despite increasing need and expectation for studies of use and users, few humanities programs provide support or training in this area. Our interdisciplinary panel draws on the expertise of literary scholars and social scientists to explore several strategies that can support the adoption of social science methodology in literary studies and other humanities research.

(1) First, Social Scientists themselves can provide examples of how these research methodologies might be employed within the study of the Humanities by participating directly in this research and presenting at a variety of disciplinary-oriented conferences. In a series of projects starting in 2008, Eric Meyer and his colleagues found that understanding users and uses is increasingly important in the digital humanities as research becomes more dependent on shared digital resources. As part of our roundtable discussion, Meyer will describe the online toolkit developed in response to these findings that allows non-experts to use quantitative and qualitative tools to understand the kinds of impacts digital humanities materials are having. The toolkit includes tools that range from focus groups and interviews to webometrics, log analysis, surveys, and Twitter tracking. Meyer will briefly demonstrate the toolkit, but will mainly focus on the case studies done by humanities experts, and on their reflections about the process. Emerging from discussion of these case studies will be Meyer’s key argument, that training and support for domain experts in the humanities to use social science research methods can be more powerful than bringing in external social science or computing specialists who may understand measurement, but are less likely to understand the context of the resources and the communities who rely on them.

(2) Lynne Siemens will argue that a second strategy to support adoption of social science methodology involves creating opportunities for discussion and collaboration between Social Scientists and Humanists through development of online resources and involvement in interdisciplinary centres (For example, see Centre for Research in the Arts 2011; King’s College London 2012; Digital Humanities Center for Japanese Arts and Cultures 2008). Siemens will discuss how these relationships increase the likelihood for those “accidental meetings” and planned sessions which serve as a foundation for interdisciplinary innovation, collaboration and knowledge sharing (Cech and Rubin 2004). As University of Victoria’s ETCL has found, associated Social Scientists can provide mentorship and guidance to students and researchers in the adoption of this methodology, particularly around the development of interview scripts, surveys and ethics applications (ETCL nd-b).

(3) Given that researchers learn appropriate disciplinary methodology during graduate training, which is later reinforced through institutional rewards and recognition policies (Bruhn 2000; Gold and Gold 1985), a third strategy must be to create opportunities that allow Humanities scholars to explore Social Science methodology. Dana Solomon and Lindsay Thomas, current doctoral candidates at the University of California, Santa Barbara, will describe their experience in performing usability studies of the Research- oriented Social Environment (RoSE) is a system that encourages users to seek out relationships between authors, works, and commentators–living and dead–as part of a social network of knowledge (funded by a National Endowment for the Humanities Digital Humanities Start-Up Grant, and directed by Professor Alan Liu). Solomon and Thomas will describe their process of examining how RoSE users interact with other people and documents in and through the system, providing an account of their experience applying social science research methods to study users and uses.


(4) James Kelley will further examine the process of learning and applying social science methods to literary research. Kelley applied grounded theory, a method widely used in qualitative research in the social sciences, to explore what teachers generally say and do not say when talking in online forums with students and with each other about assigned novels. He will describe his method for analyzing over 5,466 posts and conclude by addressing the additional challenge of explaining the value and practical methods of grounded theory to audiences who are largely unfamiliar with it.

One thought on “Adapting Social Science Methods to Humanities Research

  1. Pingback: Monica Bulger’s thoughts about digital literacy » Curriculum Vitae

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