Modelling data and Historical Research

Historical research that utilises Digital Humanities methodologies often construct databases to help structure the data and information being gathered. This can cause difficulties for how the data is structured and the type of database to be constructed. Luke Kirwan in an 2013 conference paper succinctly summed up the problems in a series of questions and observations:

“The application of digital humanities to the study of history is considered a new methodological approach, but it remains rather ad-hoc. How should a database be structured? How should ‘nouns’ be encoded? How do we tie ancient, sometimes no longer extant regions, into a modern GIS system?” (Kirwan 2013)

Kirwan’s paper on ‘Databases for quantitative history’ raises a number of questions about the feasibility of implementing databases for historical research, and in particular the use of relational databases for quantitative historical data.

The first question that needs to be addressed before any comparative analysis can be implemented is that of definitions. The terms ‘model’ and ‘data’ are utilised indiscriminately with very little definition of what each term means in the context of different modelling techniques. Goodman in Language of Art (1976) wrote a prescient critique of the term ‘model’ in the 1970s that is still relevant to our current context. Goodman’s critique was outlined in detail in Michael Gavin’s article on ‘Agent-based modelling and humanities research’.

’Few terms are used in popular and scientific discourse more promiscuously than ‘model.’” (Gavin 2014)

Goodman’s critique of ‘model’ was in popular and scientific discourse. In recent decades, the term ‘model’ is now ubiquitous across the social sciences and the humanities. This has led humanities scholars to embrace phrases such as ‘data,’ which must be ‘modelled’ for results. This is part of a broader cultural shift within elements of humanities research to borrow the rhetorical phraseology of the scientific method. In particular, this is evident in the digital humanities and this is, in many ways, the most appropriate venue for this hybrid discourse; as digital humanities is in and of itself a hybrid between the humanities and computational techniques.

In the module AFF604A, two distinct types of data modelling were outlined; relational databases and graph databases. Although neither technique is mutually exclusive and can be implemented in tandem on a project that requires a bifurcated approach, it is more common for the databases to be applied separately. For example, the 1641 Depositions project did utilise elements of graph database design and relational databases. However, from exploring the website it would appear that relational databases underpin the significant elements of the project (Conlan and Lawless). In addition, it is unclear to what degree the project followed data modelling standards such as E.F. Codd’s concept of data normalisation.

Another example is the Irish Army Census 1922; this project is a database that is neither a relational database or graph database but attempts to utilise each in its design. The result is a largely unusable dataset that is held in stasis due to the ad-hoc nature of database implementation as outlined by Kirwan. The main search index is designed around a simplistic relational database structure, however it is unclear from examining the website to what degree the data has been normalised.

Although digital humanities is utilising and opening the discussion about different types of modelling data, a lot more research into different computational techniques and the use of differing models is required for implementation in the field of historical research and in particular the design of historical databases.

Work Cited

Conlan, Owen and Seamus Lawless, “Challenges in capturing and modelling humanities data” [undated presentation] Accessed. 12 May 2017.

Gavin, M, ‘Agent-based modeling and historical simulation’ in Digital Humanities Quarterly, viii, no. 4 (2014).

Kirwan, Luke, “Databases for quantitative history” Proceedings of the Third Conference on Digital Humanities in Luxembourg with a Special Focus on Reading Historical Sources in the Digital Age, Luxembourg, December 5-6 2013.

“Project” Accessed 12 May 2017.

“Project” Military Archives of Ireland Accessed 12 May 2017.


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