Trading Zones of Digital History.

Kemman, Max
Studies in Digital History and Hermeneutics (1)
Anzahl Seiten
182 S.
€ 49,95
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Christian Wachter, Seminar für Mittlere und Neuere Geschichte, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

What is digital history, and how does it relate to the broader domain of digital humanities? Is it a (sub-)discipline with its own methodology? Does it instead extend the historian’s general toolbox through computational techniques? Do historians have to become programmers to a certain extent, as Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie famously stated in 1968?[1] Fundamental questions like these have been under continued debate for years. Most debates operate from the perspective of metatheory or philosophy of science, offering conceptional arguments on what digital history is or should be. Theorists may give remarks on particular digital research projects, but they rarely derive their standpoint from praxeological examinations of these projects. Max Kemman, in contrast, adds to the debate an empirical perspective. In his study, starting the new Open Access book series Studies in Digital History and Hermeneutics[2], he focuses on historical scholarship and how it is affected by the collaborations of historians and computational experts working together in digital history projects. Kemman has observed these “communities of practice”[3] at the Luxembourg Centre for Contemporary and Digital History (C²DH), where he has investigated the everyday synergies and challenges of collaboration. He claims that “digital history does not occupy a singular position between the digital and the historical. Instead, historians continuously move across this dimension, choosing (or finding themselves in) different positions as they construct different trading zones through cross-disciplinary engagement, negotiation of research goals and individual interests” (p. 5).

Kemman begins his demonstration with a brief characterization of digital history and its development, concisely portraying the state of international academic discourse. He identifies problems in the everyday negotiations that drive collaborations but have remained underexposed in the discussion: Historians often are uncertain of the proper use of digital methods, whereas computational experts remain insecure about how digital techniques should be applied to historical datasets. Kemman claims that in this situation, “historians are collaborating in digital history projects with the goal of steering […] infrastructures into directions suitable for historians” (p. 38). While certainly not every digital history project is concerned with infrastructure-building, Kemman rightfully stresses the dependency on infrastructures that historians have always relied on, most centrally archives and libraries. His historicizing focus on infrastructure therefore underpins the praxeological study and so proves to be legitimate.

To shed light on “trading zones” of digital history, Kemman borrows from social science studies of science, particularly by Karin Knorr Cetina, Bruno Latour, and Steve Woolgar. He explores notions of boundaries and boundary practices in cross-discipline collaborations. Kemman introduces the trading zones model as his cornerstone conceptual frame in the first section of his work. Originating in the work of the historian of science Peter Galison and extended by sociologists Harry Collins et al., the model provides an analytical framework for characterizing changing practices and power relations when two distinct communities collaborate. Kemman expands this model by adding the dimension of engagement and it is this expansion that makes his study innovative on a theoretical level. The enhanced model emphasizes that different forms and degrees of engagement influence communication and ties within a collaborative project, subsequently affecting the project’s success. Furthermore, these factors shape the methodology and self-conception of historians as researchers. Kemman provides a matrix with three axes in his trading zones model: (1) changing practices (homogeneous/heterogeneous), power relations (symmetric/asymmetric), (3) engagement (connected/disconnected). Overlapping areas of the axes indicate different types of trading zones (pp. 39–61).

Kemman applied this framework in ethnographic observations and qualitative interviews at the C²DH and presents his results in the central part of the book. He chose a Critical Discourse Analysis (CDA) approach for the interviews, an appropriate choice given that CDA as a method is mainly concerned with power hierarchies. Unfortunately, Kemman gives little information on the design of his interviews. Remarks on question conception and questionnaire systematization are scarce, although the book could have devoted some space for a more detailed explanation. This makes it difficult to interpret the collected statements with much confidence, even though the presented citations shed some light on significant perceptions and thoughts by digital history researchers. From 2014 on, Kemman conducted his research primarily in four case studies concentrating on distinct projects and parts of the Centre. At the same time, he describes collaborations as they have emerged across institutional boundaries between the C²DH and other humanities units of the University of Luxembourg. The reader is familiarized with everyday work in a setting of asymmetric power relations with historians in a dominant position. Here, Kemman reveals challenges of communication as well as the conflicting incentives and goals of historians, computational researchers, tool developers, project instigators, and funding institutions, the main actors in digital history collaborations. The reader learns about tendencies of detachment and defense of disciplinary practices that result from these conflicts. Notwithstanding this development, Kemman points out that the collaborators have gained considerable cross-disciplinary know-how as a result of their work together.

These observations might not entirely surprise many experts of digital humanities. Kemman nevertheless provides valuable insights into collaborative challenges as they play out in practice while indicating possible means of improvement. On this basis, there is another – less apparent but no less important – result of the field study: In the final part of his book, Kemman utilizes his analytical matrix to highlight changing practices, especially of collaboration managers at the C²DH. Unlike many voices, Kemman does not advocate a central power position for the managers. Instead, his observations make him emphasize a bridging role for managers who would perform their job through “brokering” expert communities’ practices, perspectives, and incentives. In Kemman’s understanding, these “brokers” depend on the collaborators in many ways, speaking an inter-language, functioning as interactional experts but maintaining a disciplinary identity as historians. Hence, Kemman claims, the ideal for digital history collaborations should not be a homogenous community of historians and technologists. Rather than such homogeneity, he presents “brokers” as key to successful infrastructure-building with historians and technologists productively collaborating but remaining distinct disciplinary communities. On these terms, “the infrastructures themselves […] function as boundary objects, robust enough to remain recognisable across different trading zones and sites of scholarship, while plastic enough to adapt to the heterogeneous needs of historians” (p. 154). These observations serve as the primary result of the empirical examination.

Max Kemman’s study on trading zones provides detailed insights into practices of digital history research. As mentioned above, the author gives few remarks on his interview methodology, and to be sure, one must consider the local scope of his research. Kemman himself points to such limitations and also maintains that one must always consider local characteristics and carefully scale local solutions to globally accessible infrastructures. In this context, it becomes relevant that different types of infrastructure-building comprise different efforts. Simone Lässig has summarized those types for two continents: In North America, infrastructures have emerged bottom-up to this day (more centrifugal effects), whereas European initiatives have aimed for large generic infrastructures for the past ten years (more centripetal effects).[4] Notwithstanding these limitations, the C²DH, as one of the leading centers for digital history, is a highly interesting qualitative case that may serve as a benchmark for examining other digital history sites. Therefore, Kemman’s anatomy of collaboration practices enriches the ongoing debates on self-conception and organization in digital history and the digital humanities by introducing a largely absent empirical input. It offers orientation for present and future infrastructure-building. Beyond the empirical addition, Kemman’s theoretical contribution is no less valuable. By enhancing the established trading zones model, he provides an innovative tool for conceptualizing and evaluating collaboration practices – beyond any specific local or regional context.

[1] Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, L’historien et l’ordinateur [1968], in: Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie (ed.), Le territoire de l’historien, Paris 1973, pp. 11–14, here p. 14.
[2] See (27.01.2022).
[3] The term addresses social conditions of learning. It has been coined by Jean Lave / Étienne Wenger, Situated Learning. Legitimate Peripheral Participation, Cambridge 1991.
[4] Cf. Simone Lässig, Digital History. Challenges and Opportunities for the Profession, in: Geschichte und Gesellschaft 47 (2021), pp. 5–34, here p. 10, (27.01.2022).