Using Computers to Help Scholars Have Good Arguments: An Online Cultural and Historical Research Environment

Scholarship in the humanities is characterized by competing interpretations of texts, artifacts, and other cultural products. Some of this is (dare we say) ego-driven, but scholarly arguments are nonetheless useful and productive because they stem from a legitimate diversity of interpretive perspectives and research agendas. Arguments are necessary for discarding faulty interpretations and generating new insights. All too often though, the computer software scholars use to aid their research has the effect of inhibiting diversity and debate because it imposes a single set of terms and concepts. Most database systems are created to meet the needs of organizations in which there is a top-down semantic authority that imposes standardized terms and concepts as, for example, in large corporations and government agencies. However, a different approach is needed to meet the needs of scholars. The Online Cultural and Historical Research Environment (OCHRE) is an innovative database system that can accommodate many different interpretations and conceptual schemes and thus facilitate not only the sharing of data but productive arguments about what it means. This talk will introduce OCHRE and give examples of its use.