Digital history & historiography

PhD Defence: Trading Zones of Digital History

26 April 2019

PhD Defence: Trading Zones of Digital History
On 26 April 2019, Max Kemman will defend his PhD thesis at the University of Luxembourg.



As long as there have been computers, there have been scholars pulling at historians, challenging them to use these computers for historical research. Yet what role computers can have in historical research is a matter of continuous debate. Under the signifier of “digital history”, historians have experimented with tools, concepts, and methods from other disciplines, mostly computer science and computational linguistics, to benefit the historical discipline. The collaborations that emerge through these experiments can be characterised as a two-sided uncertainty: historians uncertain how they as historians should use digital methods, and computational experts uncertain how digital methods should work with historical data sets. The opportunity that arises from these uncertainties is that historians and computational experts need to negotiate the methods and concepts under development.

In this thesis, Max Kemman investigates these negotiations as trading zones, as local spaces of negotiation. These negotiations are characterised as a duality of boundary practices. First, boundary crossing, the crossing of boundaries of disciplines, discourses, and institutions to collaborate. Second, boundary construction, the establishment of boundaries of groups and communities to preserve disciplinary values and remain recognisable as part of a community of practice. How boundary crossing and construction are balanced, whether disciplinary boundaries are shifted, and to what extent historians’ practices are transformed by continued interaction with computational experts, are open questions demanding closer scrutiny. These considerations lead to the research question underlying this thesis: how are historians affected by interactions with computational experts in the context of digital history collaborations?

He investigates this question through a mixed-methods, multi-sited ethnographic approach, consisting of an open online survey which received 173 responses, 4.5 years of observations at the University of Luxembourg, 37 interviews, and an LDA topic modelling analysis of 10,918 blog posts from 73 historians between 2008-2017. Through these approaches, he examines trading zones as configured by three different dimensions. First, connectedness, the extent to which collaborators connect with one another through physical proximity, communication, and the sharing of practices. Second, power asymmetry, the extent to which participants shape their own field of action as well as the fields of action of their collaborators. Third, cultural maintenance, the extent to which collaborators become more alike or stay apart by adopting new practices or displacing previous practices.

On a macro level, referring to the global historical discipline, he concludes that methodological approaches developed in local trading zones have hardly diffused to macro solutions. Insofar digital infrastructures were appropriated in the macro community, these were aligned with traditional practices. Rather than transforming historical scholarship, the challenge was to provide infrastructures congruent with existing values and practices.

On a meso level, referring to the historians engaged in digital history trading zones, he concludes that the effect of interactions was dependent on individual decisions and incentives. Some historians experimented with or adopted computational practices and concepts. Yet other historians detached their work from the shared objective of a collaboration in order to reduce risks, as well as to maintain disciplinary practices. The majority of participants in trading zones were scholars from the humanities, physically distant from collaborators, communicating more often with disciplinary peers than with cross-disciplinary collaborators. As such, even when participating in trading zones of digital history, a significant number of historians remained aligned with traditional practices. Changing practices were regularly not in the direction of computational practices, but to incentives of politics or funding. While historians that participated in digital history trading zones therefore did learn new practices, this did not entail a computational transformation of their scholarship.

Finally, on a micro level, some historians chose to engage intensively with computational experts. He calls these individuals digital history brokers, who exemplified significant shifts in practices. Brokers conducted project management; coordinated practices from archival and library domains such as data collection, transformation, and description; learned about the potential and limitations of computational technologies and where to apply these; employed inter-languages to translate between the different collaborating domains; and finally transformed historical questions into infrastructural problems.

Digital history brokers thereby not only developed interactional expertise to collaborate with computational experts. They furthermore developed political proficiency to negotiate the socio- economic potential of digital history strategies with politics, university administrators, and funding agencies. He therefore describes the practices of brokers as infrastructuring, covering a duality of negotiations. First, cross-disciplinary socio-technical negotiations with computational experts how to support scholarly practices with digital technology. Second, intra-disciplinary socio-political negotiations how to diffuse those practices within the community of practice. Digital history brokers therefore transform their own practices, so that other historians do not have to on meso or macro levels, but can employ digitised sources and digital methodology through infrastructures in a fashion that naturally fits into their practices as historians.

He thereby provides a critical view on digital history grounded in how it is conducted and negotiated. This thesis is therefore aimed mainly at scholars interested in digital history and its relation to the historical discipline and to digital humanities, as well as scholars interested in studying digital history as a specific case of cross-disciplinarity.


Defence committee

Prof. Andreas Fickers

Prof. Pelle Snickars

Ass. Prof. Benoît Majerus

Prof. Tim Hitchcock

Prof. Susan Legêne

Prof. Valérie Schafer

Ass. Prof. Christoph Schommer


Practical details

26 April 2019, 13.00

Belval Campus, Maison des Sciences Humaines

Black Box

11 Porte des Sciences

L-4366 Esch-sur-Alzette



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