Social science has faced increasing scrutiny from specific segments of the public recently, specifically with regards to the review of NSF funding allocations. So how can be, as social scientists, help the general public better understand the value of what we do? How can we engage the public in productive discourse? This is where digital humanities can have a great impact.
With my research, I’m often asked, “Why dig up the dead?” It’s a question I’ve been asked more than a few times, and although the answer varies depending on the situation, it always includes “ to better understand our past”. Bioarchaeology is a relatively new (40 or so years) branch in anthropology that seeks to use physical anthropological methods to add biological contextual analysis to past societies. Bioarchaeology can aid its public face by embracing techniques in digital humanities.
Most of the current popular news articles regarding bioarchaeology focus on natural oddities and curiosities that are, generally, misinterpreted or misrepresented in the news. A few that come to mind are the vampire burial in Bulgaria, witch burial in Italy, and skeleton lovers hold hands for 700 years.
These popular news articles are not representative of the research emphases and strong data driven explanations in social science. So how do we bridge the gap between viral news story, and accurate representation of bioarchaeology? To answer this question, its necessary to examine why specific stories grip the public’s attention. Typically it’s something sensational (see above), but other times it’s because the public can relate to the story. Specifically, the items that make the most connection are the ones where individuals have names; Richard III, Lucy, Ardi, or Otz the iceman. How can we create such a connection with larger bioarchaeological populations, or populations that don’t have names, such as the Potter’s Cemetery I’m working with?
The way to overcome this gap is to present the information in ways that are easily understood, interactive, and highly accessible. Digital humanities can do this by employing the host of technological assets available to its practitioners. Public engagement can reach beyond the bounds of the museum, and enter the daily lives of the public’s rss feeds and site scrolling by creating digital projects like the ones the CHI Fellows are working on.