Digital methods will open our eyes

Following on from his keynote appearance at DH2014, Bruno Latour has published a short (not peer reviewed) essay digital methods and the social sciences. In it he and his co-author Tommaso Venturini reject the siloing of both studies of and research using digital technologies, meditate on the limitations of quantitative and qualitative methods when used by social scientists in isolation or as independently reinforcing (in short, they are good at studying stable situation and poor at studying volatile, changing situations), plead for open methods, open results, and open data, and argue for a radical methodological shift towards ‘quali-qualitative’ methods: that is, methods that use the traces left by digital technology to erase the micro/macro border and track actors and interactions at hitherto impossible scale and detail. And all over just seven pages.

At times the essay reminded me of Tim Hitchcock’s recent call for historians to build genuine macroscopes rather than methods/tools that seem macroscopic but in reality only deal with phenomena at a detached, view from nowhere vantage point, particularly in all three authors’ call for a retention of our close scholarly focus whilst connecting it to the massive scale of human and non-human existence and for the riotous ambition – perhaps even impractical ambition? – of that call. Either way, I cannot fail to agree with Latour and Venturini’s stiring closing remarks, however daunting the task of converting their vision of scholarship into reality may be:

Social existence is not divided into two levels. Micro-interactions and macro-structures are only two different ways of looking at the same collective canvas, like the warp and weft of the social fabric. There – in the unity generated by the multiplication of differences, in the stability produced by the accumulation of mutations, in the harmony hatching from controversies, in the equilibrium relying on thousands on fractures – lie the marvel of communal existence. Qualitative and quantitative methods have too long hid this spectacle from us. Digital methods will open our eyes.

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