Max Kemman: Boundary Infrastructures of Digital History

When historians and computational experts collaborate in digital history projects, uncertainty arises for both sides. Historians are uncertain how they as historians should use digital methods, while computational experts are uncertain how digital methods should work with historical datasets. The opportunity that arises from this uncertainty is that historians and computational experts need to negotiate the methods and concepts under development. In this talk I will discuss how historians pursue these ambitions through cross-disciplinary collaboration and infrastructuring.

To support my analysis of cross-disciplinary collaboration, I have developed a model to analyse digital history collaborations as trading zones. This concept was developed by the historian of science Peter Galison to describe how two communities with vastly different practices and discourses can interact and negotiate a joint enterprise. Trading zones are defined as “an arena in which radically different activities could be locally, but not globally, coordinated.” My model operationalises this concept by describing digital history collaborations according to three dimensions: engagement, power relations and changing practices.

First, engagement (connected-disconnected), describes the extent to which the two communities meet and interact. That is, a collaboration where historians and computational experts share an office and meet on a daily basis is different from one where communication is done once a month per email. Second, power relations (symmetric-asymmetric), describes the extent to which one community has a stronger negotiating power to decide goals and practices than the other community. For example, computational experts may push a tool for historians while historians remain unable to adapt the tool to their needs. Finally, changing practices (homogeneous-heterogeneous) describes the extent to which a collaboration remains an interaction of distinct communities or merges into a singular community of shared practices. That is, whether these collaborators remain distinct historians and computational experts or blend into a community of digital historians.

I find that historians generally do not push toward changing practices. Instead, they emphasise the need for digital history methods and tools to provide benefit to historians in general. The ambition is that digital methods might eventually diffuse to the broader field of history and be adopted by historians who do not collaborate with computational experts. Since digital history projects very often develop both digital datasets as well as methods for analysis in an integrated platform, I suggest to think of these activities as infrastructuring. Infrastructuring describes the practices of technological development as well as the continuous negotiation and (re)contextualisation of technologies in work practices. Through infrastructuring, historians and computational experts try to resolve the uncertainties on both sides of the collaboration: how historians should use digital methods, and how digital methods should work for historical research. Infrastructuring thereby constitutes a trading zone that is connected with active engagement between historians and computational experts, with symmetric power relations where both sides contribute equally, and heterogeneous in practices with distinct tasks.

When infrastructuring is successful, the developed system for historical research can be become embedded in historical research as infrastructure. It is at this point that the trading zone switches to become disconnected, since historians using the infrastructure do not actively engage with computational experts anymore. Yet historians still (re)contextualise the infrastructure to fit their research process, leading to diverse applications of use. I hereto employ the concept of boundary infrastructures to describe infrastructures which offer the structure to enable the full range of necessary tools necessary for research, while still providing sufficient flexibility for local variations of practices. Digital history research infrastructures should then provide sufficient structure to enable recognisable historical research for differing (communities of) historians, while offering sufficient flexibility to move between more traditional and more digital methods and between close and distant reading.

Vortrag im Rahmen des „Digital History“-Forschungskolloquiums
Zeit: Mittwoch, 02. Februar 2022, 16-18 Uhr
Ort: Zoom-Konferenz (Zugang auf Anfrage oder via Mailingliste)

Cite this article as:
digitalhistory: Max Kemman: Boundary Infrastructures of Digital History, in: Digital History Berlin (Blog), erschienen am: 1. Februar 2022, Internet:

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