Allgemein vDHd2021 Blogreihe

A Path through the Conceptual Jungle of the Public Humanities

Public Humanities, Digital Humanities, Public Digital Humanities and Citizen Science – these are one and the same thing that simply goes by many names, right? …

Note: This is the English translation (automatically with DeepL). The original article in German by Barbara Heinisch (University of Vienna) can be found here.

Public Humanities, Digital Humanities, Public Digital Humanities and Citizen Science – these are one and the same thing that simply goes by many names, right? … Hardly. As a trained terminologist, the exact definition of and the distinction between terms are close to my heart. Therefore, this article is intended to shed some light on the jungle of terms surrounding the Public Humanities.

Terminology – the tool of choice for navigating the jungle

One of the most important steps in terminology work is term definition: determining the common (and distinguishing) features of a term. So what do all the above terms have in common? Well, at first glance it is obvious that they are all (more or less) related to the humanities. „More or less“ because Citizen Science is also practiced in other fields of science, but mainly in the natural sciences. Since ’science‘ in English excludes the humanities, other names, such as „academic crowdsourcing in the humanities“ (Hedges and Dunn 2018) or „citizen humanities“ (Belknap 2015) are also in circulation to name ‚Citizen Science‘ in the humanities.

Public Humanities vs. Citizen Humanities

So are the Citizen Humanities just old wine in new bottles? This is an obvious thought, since the Public Humanities also aim to open up the humanities beyond the university environment. They have a strong focus on science communication and outreach and, where appropriate, also involve the public in scientific discourse. Compared to the Public Humanities, however, the Citizen Humanities primarily aim at the active participation of citizens* (understood here as members of the public regardless of citizenship) in humanities research, be it the transcription of millennia-old script fragments (Shuttleworth and Frampton 2015), the annotation of paintings, or the collection and analysis of photographs of writing in public spaces (Purschke 2018). Here, the interest in knowledge and scientific progress are in the foreground.

The public humanities, in turn, are often associated with science communication or public relations in the humanities. Primarily, it is about finding new forms of communication with the public, away from the scholarly monograph. This communication can include documentary photography or films to public lectures.

Claim of the Public Humanities

However, public humanities can also be forms of dialogue, critical (joint) reflection and interpretation of cultural artifacts among scientists and citizens. As in the field of Citizen Science, there are different definitions of Public Humanities, making it difficult to distinguish them from other fields in the humanities. Public Humanities, for example, has a broad claim : on the one hand, it is about helping the humanities regain their reputation and relevance in the public sphere, and on the other hand, it is about how humanities scholars can contribute to public life. These contributions therefore range from anchoring the humanities in current public discourse and highlighting the social importance of the humanities, to making stories and voices from the public heard and striving for social justice. However, this contribution can also be to help individuals or communities cope with formative experiences, such as war, migration, or discrimination; to provide expanded access to education; and to preserve culture in times of change and crisis (Fisher 2021). While in this case the university is reaching out to the public (and there is an appearance of one-way knowledge transfer), there are also non-university organizations, such as libraries, museums, or cultural organizations, that engage people in

conversation about humanities topics or stimulate critical reflection on cultural phenomena. Accordingly, public humanities can manifest itself in an art installation, a digital exhibition, a mapping project, a historical city tour, or a commemorative project.

However, these „products“ of public humanities are intended to be more than one-way science communication that brings scientific content to the public, but are intended to create relationships and a new „public sphere“ (Jacobson 2021, p. 165) . This public sphere is characterized by a social fabric in which intellectual work is fundamentally supported from the outset. This new public sphere includes novel forms of sharing and conversation in which knowledge outside academia, e.g., from artists*, activists*, journalists*, or trade unionists*, also finds its way into the university. Democratization plays a crucial role here. Commonalities are to be worked out by means of collaborative techniques such as story-telling (Jacobson 2021, pp. 165-169). In the literature, we also find the responsibility of the humanities towards the public, which they are supposed to help (Brennan 2016, p. 384), thus emphasizing the service character of the public humanities.

While in its early days the public humanities had an almost missionary character, „lecturing“ the population and justifying the activities of the humanities to critics and funding agencies (Gibbs 2016, p. 1), public lectures, festivals, and exhibitions, among others, are now places of dialogue between science and society.some places, however, the public humanities go a step further. They can include projects that are jointly supported by scientists or students and public actors. Boster 2019, p. 222).

The public humanities thus encompass ways in which the humanities can engage with the population beyond the university (Gibbs 2016, p. 1) in order to make the knowledge created available, comprehensible, and usable beyond a small circle of specialists. This is because the humanities (also) serve the common good (Shumway 2016, pp. 33-39). The basis of any public humanities is therefore the ability of humanities scholars to communicate comprehensibly beyond their discipline (and to create communication opportunities with the population).

Public Humanities as a countermovement

The Public Humanities can also be seen as a measure in response to the declining reputation of the humanities in the public eye and the associated decline in budgets for humanities institutes. The public humanities can thus be understood as a countermovement to the ivory tower, to the increasingly narrow specialization of scholars and the associated insularity (also referred to as disciplinary silos), and to the publication of knowledge in forms of publication that are difficult to access and understand.

Areas of the Public Humanities

The Public Humanities include all activities outside of science that deal with topics in the fields of history (Public History), philosophy (Public Philosophy) or archaeology (Public Archaeology). Within Public History, for example, can be found Oral History or Historic Preservation. Public History, in turn, may include various forms of shared philosophizing (with or without claims of evoking change). Community Archaeology can also be counted as part of the field of Public Archaeology, which, among other things, can have as its goal the respectful treatment of archaeological finds (with the inclusion of indigenous populations) or the coming to terms with archaeology’s past, which was shaped by colonialism.

It becomes even more complex with the „Public Digital Humanities“ or the „Digital Public Humanities“. Without completely overlapping with the methods and content of the Digital Humanities, the component of the digital is (increasingly) used in the Public Digital Humanities. This can be the work

with and on online platforms or the use of digital technologies by the public, but also the joint design of digital technology by scientists and citizens.

However, it is difficult to draw clear boundaries because of the plurality of views and definitions. In addition, reference should be made to related terms, such as „engaged humanities,“ „democratic education,“ or „service learning,“ which also address the (challenges and possibilities of) involving members of the public or emphasize the responsibility of the humanities toward society (cf. Heinisch 2020).

Commonalities and demarcation between Public Humanities and Citizen Humanities

What do the Public Humanities and Citizen Humanities have in common? What they have in common is their (research) subject matter, namely human culture, their location in science, and to some extent the promotion of a critical examination of phenomena and values, as well as the posing of fundamental philosophical or socially relevant questions.

However, a look at the public humanities literature shows that the demarcation between citizen humanities and public humanities based on the criterion of ‚active involvement in the research process‘ (ECSA 2020) is not that simple. Indeed, some (Miller et al. 2017) see the public humanities as more than just science communication, but also as an opportunity (if not a duty) to initiate change and make a difference in society by working with citizens.

While the humanities are primarily aimed at scientists, the target groups of the public humanities, as in Citizen Science projects, are to be found outside academia. Among other things, public humanities aims to build bridges between different types of humanities activities that are not only carried out at universities, but also in private circles or communities, such as public history (Heinisch 2020).

Accordingly, the Public Humanities can be seen as an important influencing factor, if not as a precursor, for Citizen Science in the humanities. The parallels between Public Humanities and Citizen Humanities lie, among other things, in the joint realization of (research) projects between scientists and citizens. Both approaches are therefore inextricably linked to the participation of members of the public in scientific processes and (scientific and/or social) discourse, as well as science communication and various forms of communication. Moreover, they have the potential to generate (and disseminate) new knowledge. Therefore, both approaches are also an essential pillar for opening up the (humanities) sciences to society (Heinisch 2021).

Social responsibility and opening of science

When it comes to social responsibility and openness of science, the third mission of universities, namely the impact of the university on society or Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI) are often mentioned in the same breath.

With regard to the Public Humanities, this means on the one hand that the (humanities) knowledge must be relevant in the respective situation. Humanities activities, either in the form of Public Humanities or Citizen Humanities, can aim to gain knowledge or to initiate change. Thus, both are closely related to the Third Mission of universities. Without interaction and relationships between scientists and stakeholders outside science, it is difficult to achieve this impact (Heinisch 2021).

The European concept of „Responsible Research and Innovation“, which aims to bring innovation and research in line with the values, expectations and needs prevailing in society, takes a similar line. Therefore, it is essential to involve diverse stakeholders from different walks of life and backgrounds in the innovation and research process (European Commission 2020). This can be the selection of research topics together with citizens, making the results of research and innovation available to a broad public, or the preparation of ethical considerations on new technologies together with citizens.

The way out of the jungle of terms

To return to the image of the jungle … One could say that definitions and views of the public humanities are proliferating. This plurality makes it difficult to distinguish between public humanities and citizen humanities, i.e. citizen science approaches in the humanities. While communication and interaction between scientists and members of the public play an important role in both approaches, especially the Citizen Humanities have the claim to gain knowledge and to advance science, while in the Public Humanities (depending on the respective representatives) either the responsibility towards (sometimes also the performance for) society, or also the claim to influence and change society (on a large or small scale) is recognizable.

This article is licensed under the following license: CC-BY 4.0. When reusing, please include the attribute rel=“canonical“ in the link to the original post!

How to cite: Heinisch, Barbara (2021): „A Path through the Conceptual Jungle of the Public Humanities“. In: Kolodzie, Lisa, Schumacher, Mareike, Seltmann, Melanie und Brenn, Daniel (eds.): Public Humanitieshttps://publicdh.hypotheses.org/148.


Belknap, Geoffrey (2015): From Citizen Science to Citizen Humanities – 19th Century history in the digital age. Available online at https://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/press/think-leicester/science-and- environment/2015/from-citizen-science-to-citizen-humanities-2013-19th-century-history-in-the- digital-age.

Boster, Tania (2019): From Pansophia to Public Humanities: Connecting Past and Present Through Community-Based Learning. In: Hillary Eklund and Wendy Beth Hyman (eds.): Teaching Social Justice Through Shakespeare. Why Renaissance Literature Matters Now: Edinburgh University Press, pp. 215- 224.

Brennan, Sheila (2016): Public, First. In: Matthew K. Gold and Lauren F. Klein (eds.): Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 384-390.

ECSA (2020): ECSA’s characteristics of citizen science. Available online at https://ecsa.citizen- science.net/sites/default/files/ecsa_characteristics_of_citizen_science_-_v1_final.pdf.

European Commission (2020): Public Engagement in Responsible Research and Innovation. Available online at https://ec.europa.eu/programmes/horizon2020/node/766.

Fisher, Daniel (2021): Goals of the Publicly Engaged Humanities. Ed. v. Humanities for All. National Humanities Alliance. Available online at https://humanitiesforall.org/essays/goals-of-the-publicly- engaged-humanities, last checked 11/07/2021.

Gibbs, Robert (2016): Meeting Our Publics: A Search for the Right Questions in Public Humanities. In:University of Toronto Quarterly 85 (4), pp. 1-5. DOI: 10.3138/utq.85.4.1.

Hedges, Mark; Dunn, Stuart (2018): Academic crowdsourcing in the humanities. Crowds, communities and co-production. Cambridge, MA: Elsevier (Chandos information professional series).

Heinisch, Barbara (2020): Citizen Humanities as a Fusion of Digital and Public Humanities? In:magazén 1 (2), pp. 144-180. DOI: 10.30687/mag/2724-3923/2020/02/001.

Jacobson, Matthew Frye (2021): Afterword: The „Doing“ of Doing Public Humanities. In: Susan Smulyan (Ed.): Doing public humanities. New York, NY: Routledge.

Miller, Elizabeth; Little, Edward; High, Steven C. (2017) Going Public. The art of participatory practice. Toronto: University of British Columbia Press (Shared, oral & public history). Available online at https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/gbv/detail.action?docID=5116803.

Purschke, Christoph (2018): (T)Apping the linguistic landscape. In:Linguistic Landscape 3 (3), pp. 246- 266. DOI: 10.1075/ll.17023.pur.

Shumway, David R. (2016): Why the Humanities Must Be Public. In:University of Toronto Quarterly 85 (4), pp. 33-45. DOI: 10.3138/utq.85.4.33.

Shuttleworth, Sally; Frampton, Sally (2015): Constructing Scientific Communities: Citizen Science. In: The Lancet, 27 June-3 July 2015, Vol.385(9987), pp.2568-2568, p. 2568.

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