What would digital medical humanities look like?

The title of this post is a question which occurred to me a few weeks ago after a fascinating talk at King’s by Professor Alan Liu on ‘The Meaning of the Digital Humanities’. (The talk is due to appear as a paper in PMLA next year.) Liu was one of the first literary scholars to realize the potential of the internet for teaching and learning when he set up ‘The Voice of the Shuttle’, one of the first online resources for literary study, in 1994. His talk was hosted by the Department of Digital Humanities, which began as a Centre for Computing in the Humanities, one of the first of its kind, and is home to equally pioneering scholars in this area. As the renaming suggests, and as Liu’s paper outlined, digital humanities is becoming an increasingly significant trend in contemporary arts and humanities research. What was once ‘computing in the humanities’, the practical use of computers to further procedures of academic reading and writing established in the pre-digital age (concordances, digitisation, cataloguing, classification, etc.) may come to reshape them altogether.

Liu discussed a piece of research (PDF) produced by the Literary Lab at Stanford as an example of the way in which digital technology might change the way we read rather more profoundly than simply allowing wider and more efficient access to pre-digital content via full-text databases–for most, the main benefit of computing in the humanities to date. Heuser and Le-Khac’s paper, one of a number of recent data-mining or data-visualization projects, uses quantitative or statistical methods and computing power drawn from the sciences to suggest new interpretations of such familiar literary ideas as the rise of the novel and the culture and discourse of sensibility. They also try not to reduce the complexity of these subjects to simplistic formula (the kind of thing once spoofed memorably by David Lodge in his novel Small World) nor neglect the significance of hermeneutics and interpretation. Liu’s discussion of this ‘hard-edged qualitative method’ proposed a fascinating broader account in which this is just the latest part of a definition of literae humaniores, from the Renaissance on, based on doing things with texts.

Arts and humanities work on health and medicine can certainly draw on some of these techniques. For example, the visual mapping of human relationships as social networks seems to be prominent in digital humanities; this could be useful for medical historians and sociologists whose work emphasizes the significance of social groups and prosopography. DH might expand existing work on the significance of media technology in law and ethics. Or creative visualization techniques could offer new interpretations of medical and scientific experimental data. For those of us who work primarily with texts, however, there are also challenges to basic assumptions. The medical humanities as a discipline is often predicated on the idea that the humanities bring skills and perspectives to illness and health that the sciences cannot offer. We certainly believe this to be so, and in the case of narrative medicine much valuable work has been produced in recent years on how readerly attention, patience, curiosity, emotional responsiveness, and other attributes developed through literary study may further the goals of medicine and healthcare. However, digital humanities may be redrawing part of that picture of humanities practice.

So, what would ‘digital medical humanities’ look like? There is little indication from mass text-data-mining (i.e. searching Google) that it has been given much consideration. Two events in the A&H festival at King’s this week will provide further food for thought.


About James Whitehead

Lecturer/Senior Lecturer in English, Liverpool John Moores University
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