How Adopting a Quantitative Approach Saved My Humanities Research during COVID-19

I’d like to preface my thoughts below by sharing that I am thankful for having my health and safety during the pandemic, for having been able to choose from various career paths despite global workforce turbulence, and for being able to continue doing what I love during these difficult times.

The pandemic that struck us seemingly out of thin air this past year has affected all of our lives. We had plans, goals, and hopes, but we had to put these on hold or forget them entirely to prioritize our personal and collective safety. At the same time, the world continued to move along at a whirlwind speed, forcing us to live in a liminal space of simultaneous survival, in the most basic sense, and advancement.

For me, on a very small scale, this meant carrying on with my research fellowship—an opportunity I was tremendously grateful to still have despite the circumstances—but adapting the details of my ethnography-heavy plan to accommodate for COVID-19 safety measures.

Considering alternative research methods

My initial project—drafted before the global lockdown in March—contained hopes of ethnographic field visits, exhibition tours, and in-person interviews. These elements of my methodology would’ve allowed me to get a better sense of the physical spaces occupied by the Sharjah Art Foundation and to speak directly with various members of the Sharjah art community.

While I held out hope in September that I might still be able to go on these trips, albeit less frequently, it soon became clear that I would have to adjust my project somehow to suit the new remote work reality. I had two options; I could either switch to conducting virtual interviews and taking virtual exhibition tours while sticking to my initial research plan or simply rewrite my entire project to include methodologies that already existed and thrived in digital, remote environments; cue the Digital Humanities.

If you had asked me in March what this nebulous field entailed, I would’ve been just as stumped as many traditionally-trained Humanists are, myself included. Is DH (as they call it) a subcategory of the Humanities? Does practicing in DH require computer science or data skills? What exactly are the “tools” or methods used in this field? This infographic by David Haden highlights some keywords and values of DH, but the field has come a long way since this graphic was created in 2013 given that DH tools evolve as rapidly as their technologies do.

Credits to David Haden.

According to an essay on the essence of Digital Humanities by Matthew Kirschenbaum, Professor of English and Digital Studies at the University of Maryland, DH is “more akin to a common methodological outlook than an investment in any one specific set of texts or even technologies.” In this sense, Digital Humanities is a data-driven way of thinking about and approaching a topic that can be employed in any field, including Anthropology, Philosophy, Literature, Music, Law, and Art History.

Luckily, before the start of my fellowship, I had worked with the Digital Humanities-based OpenGulf project at NYU Abu Dhabi on quantitative historical analyses of the Arabian Gulf using a remote work model. Our team collected geospatial data from digitized historical texts in order to create maps visualizing historical travels in the Gulf. Given the parallels in the spatial element of this project and my own upcoming research, I realized that I could adopt this kind of workflow to trace the spatial growth of exhibitions in Sharjah using digital artwork catalogues.

Breaking down my research question

At the core of my project, I still needed to employ a qualitative research lens because I was investigating an abstract experience—the Sharjah Biennial—comprising various tangible and intangible elements—artworks, spaces, and aesthetic values. This part of my research was non-negotiable as my topic of inquiry remained the same.

However, in order to accommodate for new fieldwork limitations and incorporate the quantitative workflow I describe above into my plan, I first identified the central goals of my project so that I could tailor them appropriately. Here’s what I asked myself:

What exactly is my research question?
  • “How does the growth of the Sharjah Biennial shape the aesthetic exposure of local residents?”
    • How can “growth” be measured?
      • Although adopting a quantitative approach (by collecting geospatial data from digital catalogues) required me to learn new skills and create entirely new datasets, it helped me explore my research question from a different angle and uncover more interesting historical trends, all from the safety of my home office.
        • In practice, this approach entails leafing through exhibition catalogues and organizing the artwork and artist “data” into spreadsheets along with corresponding geospatial data to map exhibitions using mapping softwares (like ArcGIS).
What are my end goals in asking this question? How could I achieve these goals?
  • Original Goal 1: To trace the history of the Sharjah Biennial and the Sharjah Art Foundation
    • COVID-compliant process: By virtually interviewing staff, diving into digital institutional archives, reading various media sources on the foundation and exhibitions, viewing digital images of artworks, finding online maps of Old Sharjah, and collecting data on artists and venues
  • Original Goal 2: To create “data” (in any form) that can be used by other researchers
    • COVID-compliant process: By sharing my datasets and maps online and in virtual conferences so that other researchers can access them

Thinking beyond my usual repertoire of ethnographic research methods while maintaining the ability to explore non-numerical, abstract topics wasn’t easy as I was undoing four years of collecting information in a particular (largely qualitative) way. Once I began to expose myself to new methods and tools, the process became very rewarding as I was mastering the rudimentary data collection and analysis skills that I once shied away from but that now opened my research to a new mode of investigation.

While I don’t mean to imply that every researcher in the Humanities should ditch traditional ethnography or archival research and opt for digital tools instead, I do want to say that, in the current circumstances, I found great value in broadening my methodological lens to develop stronger, more interdisciplinary skills as a researcher and enhance my project through complementary, data-driven methods. I had been stuck in my comfortable research ways and likely wouldn’t have changed a thing about my project had I not been required to reconsider my plan because of my project’s limitations.

Yes, this meant some extra work on my part, but I’ve learned more about my research topic and gained many tangible skills through these challenges in just a few months—it’s my small, personal silver lining amidst these tough times.

Here are some helpful resources if you’d like to learn more about the Digital Humanities:

3 thoughts on “How Adopting a Quantitative Approach Saved My Humanities Research during COVID-19

  1. I like your approach in this analysis and the methodolgy used.
    I’m sure it will be useful for any research in relation with this matter or any other subjects.
    Good luck for more success.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Super interesting to see how researchers like yourself have been adapting to covid-related restrictions, thanks for sharing!

    I’m planning to do my masters in anthropology and have been waiting for travel and contact restrictions to disappear to do that.. Maybe there’s a way I can get started before then using DH methodologies. Cool 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s wonderful! And yes, there are so many possibilities for methodological frameworks in anthropology that are worth checking out, especially during the somewhat limiting circumstances.


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