Digital History as Trading Zone


Digital History signifies a transition wherein digital methods are incorporated in historical research. Digital History thus introduces techniques developed by computer scientists or engineers into the practice of historians, so that we can speak of methodological interdisciplinarity.1 However, how digital methods affect the practices of History, in methodology as well as epistemology, remains unexplored. My PhD research aims to address this gap. This summary introduces some initial ideas and concepts that I will be investigating with an ethnographic study for which I hope to find interested historians, computer scientists, or other relevant actors of Digital History.

Trading zone

In general, I see three forms of methodological interdisciplinarity in Digital History that are of interest. These three forms are not mutually exclusive, but can occur interchangeably or even simultaneously, or one form could lead to another:

  • Digital History as collaboration with Computer Scientists
  • Digital History as end-users of tools
  • Digital History as building tools independently

Such forms of interaction between History and Computer Science can also be described as interactions between two different communities of practice2 or epistemic cultures,3 which I want to research using the model oftrading zones. This model  describes “an arena in which radically different activities could be locally, but not globally, coordinated”.4 In short, such a trading zone signifies a local process of negotiation between the different epistemic cultures so that interdisciplinary collaboration can take place.

Dimensions of acculturation

We can expect that this interdisciplinary interaction is here to stay; digital methods are likely to get more prominent with time. As such, it is of interest to what extent this trading zone leads to acculturation; “the process by which the beliefs and practices of one community diffuse across the boundaries of another and subsequently alter the second community’s practices and interpretations”.5 We can investigate this process of acculturation by three dimensions:67

1) Cultural maintenance from homogeneous to heterogeneous. That is, will a local practice of Digital History lead to a fusion of History and Computer Science, or will the two remain strictly separate cultures?

2) Coercion from collaborative to coerced. That is, will this process be entirely voluntary and beneficial to both communities, or will historians see themselves coerced to incorporate practices because it will be the computer scientists who decide how a certain technology works?

3) Contact & Participation from being involved with the other cultural group to being involved amongst themselves. That is, do we see that historians and computer scientists work in close contact (e.g. in the same office), or is the collaboration more distant (e.g. in different departments or universities, with contact only in occasional meetings)?

Ethnographic study

It is such questions that I will be investigating in an ethnographic study consisting of observations and interviews with historians and their collaborators. For this study I will conduct interviews in North-western Europe and the US, with detailed case studies in the Benelux.

If you are involved in digital research projects for historical research as a historian, computer scientist, or from another background, and if you have the time for an interview via e-mail or Skype, please contact me.


  1. Klein, J. T. (2014). Interdisciplining Digital Humanities: Boundary Work in an Emerging Field (online). University of Michigan Press. doi:10.3998/dh.12869322.0001.001 ref-oa
  2. Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning, and Identity. Cambridge University Press.
  3. Knorr Cetina, K. (1991). Epistemic Cultures: Forms of Reason in Science.History of Political Economy, 23(1991), 105–122. doi:10.1215/00182702-23-1-105 ref-closed (PDF here ref-oa)
  4. Galison, P. (1996). Computer simulations and the trading zone. In The Disunity of Science: Boundaries, Contexts, And Power (pp. 118–157). Stanford University Press. ref-oa
  5. Barley, S. R., Gordon, W. M., & Gash, D. C. (1988). Cultures of Culture: Academics, Practitioners and the Pragmatics of Normative Control.Administrative Science Quarterly, 33(1), 24–60. ref-oa
  6. Berry, J. W. (1997). Immigration, Acculturation, and Adaptation. Applied Psychology, 46(1), 5–34. ref-oa
  7. Collins, H., Evans, R., & Gorman, M. (2007). Trading zones and interactional expertise. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 38(4), 657–666. doi:10.1016/j.shpsa.2007.09.003 ref-closed

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