Coding in the humanities

Stephen Ramsey posed a question to DH “Do you have to know how to code?” (Ramsey 2011). Ramsey argued in a three-minute segment at a conference that indeed DH should be able to code, this has since become one of his most controversial remarks.

Ramsey addressed the issue again in his on-building article and in a sense clarified his position “Only a radical subset of the digital humanist community knows how to code; nearly all are engaged in building something” (Ramsey 2013). I believe it is important to have these conversations to get people thinking and talking about DH as I suspect was Ramsey’s intention even if it is described as the “DH whine”. I do acknowledge this is a difficult question to answer much like when I try to explain to my family and friends that I am enrolled on a course in Digital Humanities!

In order to answer the question it is necessary to differentiate between coding and the use of computational techniques i.e. markup languages such as HTML and XML, data mining and data visualisation tools, all of which are used to make our data recognisable to computers. I personally believe being digitally literate in computational techniques are necessary skillsets required for DH(DH) scholars. Thankfully Markup languages are straightforward to learn, and many digital tools have user friendly interfaces for example Voyant tools.

I do not believe that being able to code using programming languages such as Phyton, Java and R should be a prerequisite to becoming a DH. We do however need to recognise the potential opportunity coding offers to our research projects. Pennsylvania State University completed a study on programming in the digital humanities. A key finding is the fact that respondents in 50+ age cohort could code whilst this was less apparent in the younger counterparts. “These findings could arguably be the product of younger scholars having been trained in interdisciplinary environments, and thus having a genuine appetite for collaboration”. (O’Sullivan et al. 2016). I found these results surprising; I would have been guilty assuming that younger respondents would be the able to code, perhaps an explanation to why the 50+ age cohort can code is that they prefer ‘traditional’ solo projects rather than interdisciplinary research methods.  Another explanation could be some educational institutes have decided coding is not an essential skill in DH and have recognised that they digital humanities requires a multi-disciplinary approach and therefore don’t include it on their curriculum.

What impact would it have on the humanities if DH were forced to learn how to code. Women are already at a disadvantage as from young boys are taught coding more than girls, ‘On the tech side there are men, and on the research side there are women’ (Griffin 2019).  If we make DH all about the coding this will further exacerbate the existing gender bias in digital humanities in terms of the lack of representation of women and the gender gap in citations.  (West et al. 2013) suggest that some of the reasons for low citation reporting are that ‘women historically have been underrepresented in the first author position’. By forcing the need to code in DH this would further compound the gender issue considering adding to unconscious bias. Nowviskie acknowledged that “I’m sure that gender imbalance in this area has little to do with the Digging into Data grant-making process and more with broader issues, going all the way back (yes, that chestnut) to Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) education for girls in the public schools.” (Nowviskie 2011).

We also need to consider education privilege not all cultures would support learners from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Perhaps not all children would grow up in a house that would afford them the devices and broadband to learn how to code? It’s a complex societal issue that we would be contributing to by insisting all DH knew how to code.

Digital humanities is plural and collaborative and multi-faceted. The key to becoming an exceptional DH I believe is recognising the importance of collaboration. Collectively we as humans do better work. Most humanists understand coding and recognise its potential, this I feel is enough. At this point in a research project we should bring in other disciplines i.e. Computer Scientists. The government do this all the time we can’t be and expert in every area. Our main strength is that humanities-based research i.e. how we look at culture and preserve it and do some research to help improve our society. Don’t underestimate what we offer to the table; other disciplines can learn a lot form DH. Collaboration can also help digital humanities to gain prominence. Fitzpatrick offers some insight “The particular contribution of the digital humanities, however, lies in its exploration of the difference that the digital can make to the kinds of work that we do as well as to the ways that we communicate with one another. These new modes of scholarship and communication will best flourish if they, like the digital humanities, are allowed to remain plural.” (Fitzpatrick 2011).

I don’t believe you have to know how to code a lot of humanities scholarship involves text analysis. We can’t be dismissive of what coding brings to the table but you don’t have to be the expert and you will learn some fundamentals along the way but it shouldn’t exclude you from a career as a DH. We need to respect code and know what it can and can’t bring to each research project we undertake. We need to have confidence in the nuance DH brings to research of our societal questions and work in collaboration by using multi-interdisciplinary teams. This collaboration will I believe strengthen the Digital Humanities and perhaps get the message out about the truly unique opportunities of the digital humanities offers as perhaps a solution finder for some of our societal issues.


Anya Schiffrin, Karolina Koc-Michalska, and Michelle Ferrier. 2021. ‘Full Article: Women in the Digital World’. Accessed 13 March 2022.

Fitzpatrick, Kathleen. 2011. ‘“Chapter 2: The Humanities, Done Digitally | Kathleen Fitzpatrick” in “Debates in the Digital Humanities” on Debates in the DH Manifold’. Debates in the Digital Humanities. 2011.

Gold, Matthew K. 2012. ‘“Debates in the Digital Humanities” on Debates in the DH Manifold’. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Accessed 13 March 2022.

Griffin, Gabriele. 2019. ‘Intersectionalized Professional Identities and Gender in the Digital Humanities in the Nordic Countries’. Work, Employment and Society 33 (6): 966–82.

Nowviskie, Bethany. 2011. ‘“Blog Post: What Do Girls Dig? | Bethany Nowviskie” in “Debates in the Digital Humanities” on Debates in the DH Manifold’. Debates in the Digital Humanities. Accessed 13 March 2022.

Oiva, Mila. 2020. ‘The Chili and Honey of Digital Humanities Research:The Facilitation of the Interdisciplinary Transfer of Knowledge in Digital Humanities Centers’. Digital Humanities Quarterly 14 (3).

O’Sullivan, James, Diane Jakacki, and Mary Galvin. 2015. ‘Programming in the Digital Humanities’. Digital Scholarship in the Humanities 30 (suppl_1): i142–47.

Puschmann, Cornelius, and Marco Bastos. 2015. ‘How Digital Are the Digital Humanities? An Analysis of Two Scholarly Blogging Platforms’. PLoS One 10 (2): e0115035.

Ramsay, Stephen. 2013. ‘On Building’. In Defining Digital Humanities. Routledge.

Terras, Melissa, Julianne Nyhan, and Edward Vanhoutte, eds. 2016. Defining Digital Humanities: A Reader. London: Routledge.

West, Jevin D., Jennifer Jacquet, Molly M. King, Shelley J. Correll, and Carl T. Bergstrom. 2013. ‘The Role of Gender in Scholarly Authorship’. PLoS ONE 8 (7): e66212.