Building DH Infrastructure for the Study of Asia, Middle East, and Africa: How they do it in France

Infrastructure in academia is what gives cohesion to a subject. It is a meeting place you know you can go to, a foundation onto which to built out so that we don’t all have to invent the wheel for ourselves. As such, infrastructure is one of the most important things for digital methods in non-Western area studies. Success for digital methodology and toolkit depends on wide acceptance in our fields and a steady growth in usability and capabilities. In this sense, we are truly different from fields such as English literature, modern history, or media studies. The digital world is not inherently ready for us, and we are not inherently ready for it. The infrastructure that these fields have created is therefore not entirely usable to us. Of course, to bridge the gap in both directions is what The Digital Orientalist has been for. But with it, we at The Digital Orientalist have accidentally stumbled into infrastructure-building. We are, in some sense, part of that first generation infrastructure to give DH in our fields substance and foundation.

We are on the lookout for the coming to be of a second generation infrastructure. And today we spotlight a remarkable initiative that seems to become just that. A conversation with Mercedes Volait, research professor at CNRS, who is leading a multi-field attempt to put digital humanities for oriental fields definitively on the map in France. 

Prof. Mercedes Volait, CNRS

Thank you for sitting down with me. We are here at a workshop applying digital methods and data analysis to Humanities research on non-Western cultures and civilizations. You mentioned this workshop is a stepping stone towards establishing DISTAM. Can you explain what DISTAM is?

DISTAM stands for Digital Studies for Asia, Africa, and Middle East. We develop it as a consortium specifically for non-Western area studies. Americanists were interested in joining, but we considered they have enough means to do their work. And as for us, we think there is a specific space for non-Western languages. We need to build specific tools and best practices by ourselves, for ourselves.

What is the status of DISTAM?

When I was a member of the scientific committee for Huma-Num, I realized there was space for new consortiums, and one gap was area studies so I wanted to mobilize the field. We started with attracting postdocs and an Action Nationale de Formation two years ago, including a white paper about DH in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies. Huma-Num is the organization in France which takes care of the national infrastructure of digital humanities, with consortia as a meeting point between Huma-Num and actual scholars. The ANF is organized by the GIS organizations for Asia, African Studies, and Middle East and Islamic world).

Okay that’s a lot of organizations… how did that came about?

In France we have a tradition of working with national infrastructures so that’s what we think of when we set out to do something. I think, in a way, it’s working. Take for example the hypothèses platform, with its thousands of academic blogs. I overheard someone mistaking it for an initiative of the European Union. That’s cuckoo, but it shows its success… and perhaps it also shows how we are overlooked sometimes.

And back to DISTAM. What can we expect from it?

What we have in mind for now is four working groups: data mining, referencing, geo-visualization, and legal and ethical issues. They are each asked to organize their own communities, to create training and to support projects. All of us meet annually, for about five days in the summer. We can discuss our projects and the problems we run in and also what kind of collective project we can engage in. We are also looking at setting up a website to create guides online. We already have a number of video recordings and we will continue to do this, to share our knowledge as widely as possible. Circulation of information is one of the problems in France and we think DISTAM can play a positive role in this.

Is it gaining some traction?

Yes, in fact it already worked. It started in Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies and we were contacted by Marie Bizais-Lillig who is a scholar of Chinese Studies. She was very interested, joined our events and one thing led to another. There is a big enthusiasm, which is also on display today at this workshop. 

Who is it for, exactly?

For now it is mainly geared towards researchers and university lecturers. There are a few doctoral students at this workshop but we are not organized yet as a graduate school and that’s not our concern. What we rather would like to do something about is what we call ingénieurs, ‘technical officers’, which we want to associate closer to our work. All too often scholars see the development of technology as detached from our intellectual work which makes use of this technology. But if people from the humanities and people from tech do not work together then it simply doesn’t work.

And what do you see as future goals?

I’d like to take the conversation to the European level. To consolidate what we are doing with what others are doing. I imagine we can first do so in terms of workshops, similar to how we collaborated with the Dutch graduate school NISIS before. Maybe we can head towards a joint degree in digital studies applied to non-Western area studies. I don’t think any of us European countries can do it on its own but together we can and it would be a huge boon.

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