Institute News

Digital Approaches to Genocide Studies (Summary)

Digital Approaches to Genocide Studies

October 23-24, 2017

“Digital Approaches to Genocide Studies” was the first international conference bringing the fields of digital humanities and genocide studies together. Organized by the USC Shoah Foundation Center for Advanced Genocide Research and cosponsored by the USC Digital Humanities Program, the conference convened 23 scholars from all over the world -- the United States, Germany, Poland, France, the United Kingdom, Australia, and Canada. The scholars represented a variety of disciplines, including history, geography, cinematic arts, media and communications, peace and conflict studies, design and spatial history, political science, linguistics, forensic archaeology and genocide investigation, creative writing, sociology, and digital humanities.

With as much time dedicated to discussion as to the presentations themselves, the conference presenters and audience (a mix of undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty) engaged in lively discussions over the two days of the conference. Seven esteemed and emerging scholars from USC and UCLA moderated these discussions. While there was wide variety of digital methods, tools, and genocides represented, the presentations spoke to each other in fruitful ways, and many common themes emerged. Here are just a few of them.

What would it mean to move beyond the familiar search box or move beyond individual experience as our central unit of analysis in genocide studies? Digital technologies, methods, and tools enable us to conceptualize different modes of search, discovery, representation, and visualization. Applying existing tools or developing specialized software can reveal patterns we cannot identify when working with our traditional individual means. For example, what would a relational database look like, or a database of linguistic, spatial, or social networks in which the network is the central unit of analysis instead of the individual? Can we envision maps where relationships between bodies become the coordinates instead of latitude and longitude? Digital methodologies allows us to test experimental and speculative questions on a large scale, and new knowledge emerges. One of several examples of this at the conference was Paris Chronakis’ research, through which he pushed the audience to imagine how the Visual History Archive would be different if social relations were the archive’s organizing unit instead of the individual. Through a digital reconstruction of social networks, and attention to the qualities and fabric of those relationships, each survivor is contextualized as a networked self instead of a figure alone, and the significance, complexity, and necessity of social relations, and their link to survival, are brought into sharp relief.

Related to this, another common recurring theme was the capacity of the digital to contend with scale, volume, process, space, and time (and/or a combination of these) in innovative ways. Many of these are dimensions of genocide that have so far been understudied, and the contributions digital humanities can make here are significant. Throughout the conference, scholars presented research that utilizes digital tools that enable the researchers to shift scale – for example, from the district to the neighborhood to the street to the building to the apartment.    Changing scales while placing people – and/or their movements -- in time and space facilitates spatiotemporal analyses that illuminate the dynamic, processual, and collective aspects of genocide while also locating the individual within larger patterns, processes, and flows.

One exciting example of this at the conference was Andrew Curtis’ research featuring spatial video geonarratives that he and his collaborators have collected in Cambodia in order to investigate the evacuation of Phnom Penh during the Cambodian genocide. These narratives are collected in motion (for example, the narrator is the passenger in a car) and spatially tagged as the survivor is describing what they saw or experienced in particular places. Often seeing the places they are describing evokes memories not elicited in a traditional interview setting. From the data, the researchers created GPS maps of the routes people took, which reveal there was not one set path out of the city. On these GPS maps, one can shift scale down to the particularities of each individual narrative, to the smells and sounds the survivor experienced during the specific points of their journeys, or to the words they use to describe their experiences, or to the temporality of their movements and experiences. One can scale down not to the individual but to particular geographic points in the city in order to search by space and investigate what narratives, patterns, processes, or temporalities are associated with that space. Curtis’ team has experimented with many methods to visualize the complexity of the survivors’ movements and experiences – placed both in time and space – and as a result, features of the evacuation have become clear that were previously unknown or unexamined.

A remarkable feature of so many of the presentations was that while many scholars are working with large sets of data, including the testimonies from the USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive which were central to many of the presentations, and many researchers are experimenting with different modes and scales of analysis, they still attend to individual experience. In their methods, the researchers themselves are constantly changing scale – zooming down to the individual level and back out – which digital tools enable.

The possibility for individual experience to get lost in the face of big data and digital humanities approaches to genocide studies is one example of the kind of ethical anxieties at the intersection of digital humanities and genocide studies. Discussions surrounding ethics were a constant refrain throughout the conference. What does it mean to experiment with models and digital tools when the data comes from genocide? Do the kinds of classifications that complex databases or data structures require echo the logics that make genocide possible in the first place, reducing people, their experiences, and their complexity to fixed categories? In using digital tools to reconstruct places that have been destroyed or reconstruct trajectories of people who have passed away, are we somehow denying, distorting, or diminishing the ultimate destruction that genocides bring? Scholars confront ethical questions like these in their research and discussed many of them throughout the conference.

Representation and visualization emerged as recurring themes in many of the papers as well. Several of the presenters pushed the audience to reconsider what those terms even mean. For example, people have long thought of visualization as showing people something. In fact, it is not just a mode of conveying knowledge but it is a mode of generating knowledge as well, and even provoking new ways of thinking, especially spatially. In their presentation, Anne Knowles and Erik Steiner, members of the Holocaust Geographies Collaborative, discussed and presented many evocative and innovative visualizations. One striking example is an animated simulation of Jewish people’s movements in the Budapest ghetto in 1944, especially between their homes and the market halls where they would obtain food. (The researchers knew the market halls were significant because of survivor testimonies.) This animated visualization is an interactive model in which users can modify the simulation by adjusting time of day, walking speed, or time spent shopping. The simulation can allow researchers to discover new things and ask new questions. Are some streets safer than others? Would someone be more or less visible in certain places or at certain times in their movements? How crowded do the market halls get under different circumstances? This dynamic visualization enables the researchers and any users of the tool to increase their understanding about what it meant to be Jewish in this particular place at this particular time. Digital tools and methods are contributing to designers, scholars, and artists rendering, exploring, and discovering spaces, places, patterns, movements, meanings, and experiences in innovative ways, culminating in groundbreaking research.

Scholars throughout the conference agreed that digital tools and methods can contribute to our understanding of genocide, can challenge or confirm what we think we know, and can enable us to make new discoveries. However, the digital is not just something researchers apply outwards onto data they want to analyze. Digital tools and methods have also transformed the ways in which many scholars conduct their research. From complex information technologies to something as innocuous as the cameras in their cell phones, the ways in which scholars conduct their research, gather their data, and communicate their research to various audiences have been transformed by the digital. Scholars were eager to share and hear about the digital aspects of their methodology and the parts that remain non-digital. Several of the presentations elicited discussions about the relationship between the digital, visualization, representation, and empathy. Can the digital allow us to represent the experiences of targeted populations in a way that not only educates people but also activates their empathy? Can the digital allow scholars to communicate their work in a way that is more immediate or affecting than traditional scholarly outputs, perhaps broadening their impact beyond only scholarly circles?

Another theme that repeatedly stood out at the conference was the significance of collaborative and interdisciplinary research projects. Scholars discussed whether there is something about the digital world that inherently leads to more collaboration since many different skills are required (from the computational to the geographical to the historical to the artistic, for example). In his presentation, one of the scholars from the Holocaust Geographies Collaborative, Alberto Giordano, moved beyond interdisciplinarity and called for “transdisciplinarity” – the transcendence of traditional disciplinary boundaries, another exciting new frontier at the intersection of genocide studies and digital humanities.

Other recurring themes that emerged include the relationship between the digital and memorialization, commemoration, memory, and historiography; the challenges scholars face in the digital’s lack of capacity to engage with uncertainty, ambiguity, and the unavailability of or absence of data; and discussion of ownership and control in the digital sphere.

Before the conference concluded, scholars remarked on the fruitfulness of the conference organizers allotting so much time for discussion; praised the mixture of technical, methodological, and ethical discussions tied to the scholars’ research questions; and expressed that perhaps genocide studies – as exemplified by the researchers at the conference – could provide an example to the field of digital humanities more broadly of how to approach their work with both ethical sensitivity and rigor.


To view videos of the conference proceedings, click here.


Summary by Martha Stroud