Digital humanities: a natural transdisciplinary topic for Sorbonne University

  • Multidisciplinary research

As digital technology develops exponentially, we cannot ignore what this tool can bring to the Humanities.

Elisabeth Angel-Perez, Vice President of Research and Innovation, shows us how the multidisciplinary nature of Sorbonne University predisposes it to actively invest in this transdisciplinary topic that is digital humanities.

What does  "digital humanities" cover?

Digital humanities is a transdisciplinary field. The concept is twofold. On the one hand, it invites us to think about the convergences between technology and humanities and to consider research methodology that puts new technologies at the service of humanities, at the heart of the disciplines in the field of Languages, Humanities and Social Sciences (LLSH). This ranges from text mining in literature to augmented publishing, biomedical humanities, field studies in geography, virtual reconstruction of archaeological heritage, and more. On the other hand, it encourages us to reflect on the digital human we have become. Digital humanities can concern all the disciplinary fields of LLSH.

Why are they an important issue today for Sorbonne University?

Sorbonne University is by nature multidisciplinary. The coexistence in our university of LLSH and a remarkable capabilities in data sciences and artificial intelligence, makes synergies between disciplines emerge in a natural and almost obvious way. This transversal approach is also embodied in the choice of our new digital artist in residence, Kaspar Ravel. Our University is proud to have the first ERC (European Research Council) grant in digital humanities in France, held by Glenn Roe (site in French). Federating the field of digital humanities at Sorbonne University in order to identify our internal strengths and promote them is essential.

In addition to a way of thinking about one’s discipline in terms of the computer tool, digital humanities also invite us to look at the cultural changes determined by new technologies. This new disciplinary field requires us to question our research practice and the way in which these new tools --such as encoding, data mining, exploration-influence research in LLSH. In other words, digital humanities are a new field of research which asks us to think about what these new tools do to research. Digital humanities also invite us to question the possible risk of a "technological determinism" (our practices and our way of thinking could end up being determined by the tools). Developing these tools does not go without a reinterpretation of the way we think about our relationship to the world and construct our relationship to knowledge.

What were the objectives and challenges of this first "Digital Humanities" day organized on January 18, 2023?

First of all, it was a question of taking stock of the work currently being done in this field in the three faculties. We received a very large number of responses to the call for expressions of interest for this day. We were able to see the incredible diversity and richness of digital humanities at Sorbonne University, as they are carried out both in disciplinary structures (laboratories or research units) and in the Institutes and Initiatives whose primary mission is to promote interdisciplinary research within our institution. It is important to bring together researchers involved in the field of digital humanities so that synergies, shared problems and, why not, common projects can emerge.

This day was also an opportunity to present tools and support mechanisms that are already in place, but are still unknown to our community. Among them, let’s mention the mixed service units, such as CERES (site in French), located in the Faculty of Letters, obTIC (site in French), attached to SCAI , or the Plemo3D platform (site in French).

The third objective was to identify needs (technological, financial and human) in order to improve support for research teams.

Finally, it was a question of structuring a strong disciplinary field, for research but also for education, and to reinforce its visibility at Sorbonne University and the Sorbonne University Alliance. We are also going to work in partnership with the other universities with Humanities and Social Sciences at the national and international level to aggregate knowledge and advance knowledge. We have already begun to build fruitful collaborations with other universities in central Paris, notably Paris Sciences et Lettres and the Panthéon-Sorbonne University, which are very involved in the field of digital humanities. At the European and international level, we wish to develop scientific cooperation and promote co-supervised doctoral programs with our partners either within the framework of the 4EU+ Alliance or with other strategic partnerships.

How do you plan to federate the digital humanities at Sorbonne University?

We are in the process of refining our mapping work by identifying people who are interested, users or experts in a research field related to digital humanities that are within our community.

Next spring, a second thematic day will be organized. Its objective will be to propose to researchers who were not able to participate previously to present their work, to invite our colleagues from the Sorbonne University Alliance and, of course, to identify the means necessary for the full development of this disciplinary field.