About DISSINET: Interview with Dr. David Zbíral

English translation of an interview with the DISSINET project’s PI about DISSINET and the Digital Humanities. Originally published in Sacra in September 2019.

3 Aug 2020

Czech original was published in the Sacra journal in September 2019.
Authors: Jan Král and Vít Marša, Masaryk University, Faculty of Arts, Department for the Study of Religions.
Translated by Jan Král.


Greetings, thank you for finding the time to do this interview about your current research for our journal. At the end of the year 2018, you were awarded the EXPRO grant for the project “Dissident Religious Cultures in Medieval Europe from the Perspective of Social Network Analysis and Geographic Information Systems (DISSINET)”. This project is one of only five in the humanities field that received the EXPRO grant in 2018. We would like to congratulate you on this prestigious achievement. The following interview will be dedicated precisely to this project and how it came about.

Could you please briefly summarize this project? What are its main goals? What would you like to achieve? Is there any specific problem that you would like to point out or solve?

DISSINET is a long-term project that spans beyond the period of the current grant – both into the past, at least back to the year 2014 when I prepared a grant proposal on the same topic for the European Research Council, and hopefully also into the future after the year 2023 when the current funding will end. It is a long-term project of systematic work on medieval records of heresy inquisitions, using digital technologies. DISSINET is a team project; therefore, it relies on the knowledge, abilities and the energy of multiple people. We make many decisions together: our discussions are sometimes quite long, but always extremely fruitful. The project’s main aim is to broaden the knowledge of the nonconformist religious cultures of medieval Europe by using methods that are not usually applied to these topics. We want to understand the microstructure of social relationships of heresy suspects, the emergence of institutions from local interactions, the spatial patterns of religious non-conformism, the function of hidden networks in the conditions of the premodern world. Another aim – the strategic-political goal, if you will – is to support the development of digital humanities in the context of Masaryk University and its Faculty of Arts. These are, in short, our goals. To give some examples of specific problems that are being treated by our research right now, we are investigating the importance of kinship ties in the functioning of non-conformist networks, and the roles of men and women in these networks.

The project applies digital humanities methods to non-conformist Christian movements in the Middle Ages. Could you describe these concepts to readers who are unfamiliar with them?

As Talal Asad has shown in his contribution concerning the anthropological approach to medieval heresy, religious non-conformism comes into being as a product of certain norms being required. However, these norms were not always unambiguous, even within Christianity, a religion that we so often tend to associate with normative requirements; and, above all, it was not enforced with the same strictness across all times and places. Quite a few of the people with religious aspirations or a specific type of spiritual upbringing found themselves at tension, or even conflict, with the religious offer provided by organized institutions. Sometimes, especially at the beginning of their religious development, these people did not even realize that they had diverged from the mainstream. However, in certain historical contexts, this difference was pointed out to them. Sometimes they have caught the attention of inquisitors and were examined; as a result, we now have records of their social ties, practices, narratives, norms, and emerging institutions. They were completely normal people, albeit that they were sometimes at a greater distance from the official ecclesiastical hierarchy than was considered acceptable within their surroundings. Thus, they weaved aspects of religious innovation – often alongside a more conservative adherence to older Christian traditions – into their social environment. In the process, they left the mainstream and became the subject of attention or inquisition, since heresy in the Middle Ages was defined as a crime.

And digital humanities?

Fundamentally, the term “digital humanities” signifies the enrichment of traditional humanities research by the use of digital technologies. Nowadays, all of us use computers in our studies and research. For instance, when we look for a reference, we naturally use digital technologies. Digital humanities go a step further, promoting the intensive and systematic use of digital technologies to find new answers to existing questions, to analyze formerly unapproachable or unaggregated data, to open up fields of research that were formerly hard or even impossible to investigate. It is, above all, a specific way of practising the humanities, organizing source information, and utilizing sources as research data, be it through digitization, organization into databases, enhancement with annotation tools, or the transformation of sources to novel previously unavailable complex datasets for answering specific research questions. Within DISSINET, we are developing especially the latter approach.

DISSINET includes both researchers from abroad and the Czech Republic, and even some students from the Department for the Study of Religions at Masaryk University. Could you briefly introduce your team?

Tomáš Hampejs and Adam Mertel have already contributed to a sister project called GEHIR (Generative Historiography of the Ancient Mediterranean) led by Aleš Chalupa at the Department for the Study of Religions. Both are currently finishing their dissertations – Tomáš in Study of Religions, Adam in Geography. Tomáš brings programming and social network analysis competencies into the project, and we share an interest in the situational emergence of religion in interpersonal interactions. Adam’s specialization is geographic information systems and spatial analysis. He is interested in visualization of historical data. Jan Král is an M.A. student in the study of religions at Masaryk University, with whom I have already collaborated on his bachelor’s thesis. Currently, he is developing its topic, the social network analysis of Lollardy in late medieval England, as part of the DISSINET project. Robert Shaw works within the project as a postdoctoral researcher. His dissertation, defended in 2014 at the University of Oxford, focussed on a reformist monastic congregation, the Celestines, in France at the end of the Middle Ages. In DISSINET, he explores inquisitorial records from Languedoc with a focus on the interactions between the nonconformist cultures and inquisition processes. Recently, we accepted Tomáš Diviák as a research associate. He is concerned with covert networks, such as criminal ones, and with statistical models in social network analysis. Tomáš is finishing his doctorate in Groningen under the supervision of Tom Snijders, one of the leading scholars developing new statistical models for network analysis. As for myself, in DISSINET, I divide my attention between team coordination and inquisitorial records from Languedoc and Lombardy.

Aside from the traditional outcomes such as scientific articles and conference papers, there are some less typical outputs planned by your project. What more does DISSINET offer? Has it already released any publications?

Yes, as is customary for a project close to the digital humanities, we emphasize digital outcomes; online maps, software tools for other researchers, infographics, and the data itself. Our website (https://dissinet.cz/) already includes an interactive map of the localities where non-conformist Christians of England came from at the turn of the 16th century. Soon, a map of the Cathar houses in Languedoc will be added as well. We did not rush to publish articles, and just one has been released so far. Above all, we want to build the project upon strong foundations and develop a high-quality structure for organizing, exploring, and analyzing the data from the inquisitorial records.

DISSINET is an interdisciplinary project – what fields of research does it include?

The way we work with the historical sources, and many of relevant questions, fall into the field of historical research; we are also influenced by the study of religions and historical anthropology, in the sense that we are interested in a more general understanding of people’s actions and ways of thinking. Another set of questions, as well as some of our target journals, are drawn from the social network analysis community. Should we try to define the boundaries of our identity in the simplest terms, we primarily work within the digital humanities, even though we often add that we are not much interested in infrastructures and databases per se, as is common in digital humanities research, but in answering specific historical research questions. Thinking outside the box, DISSINET might even be compared to gardening! The organization of complex data and their utilization in research requires thorough consideration, intense seasonal labour, and nearly constant upkeep.

It has already been said that your project is not afraid of using a whole range of new methods and computational technologies. What methods or technologies do you use to organize your team and to communicate?

Truth be told, I would be more afraid to use a typewriter and paper files. I would probably not know how to do it. I have always admired the old school researchers and their ability to organize and find information without Google, without a computer that has a search function, text editor and a file manager. They had just paper cards and unfailing discipline in the organization of data. But back to the question – as befits a digital humanities project, we use the digital technologies quite intensively as a way of communication and work organization. To organize bibliographic information, we use the bibliography manager Zotero, which I have been recommending to students for several years. Google Drive is invaluable for collective work on documents. For discussions outside of meetings, we use the discussion forum Slack. Trello is used to organize our tasks, even though some of the team members – perhaps everyone apart from me! – roll their eyes at the fact that after just a half a year of the project’s existence it already contains around 200 cards and well above 2500 individual tasks.

How do you see the future of the fusion of humanities and digital sciences? Are the emerging projects still uncertain steps into the unknown, or do you predict a huge boom of these approaches to humanities? Or will it stay a marginal, though useful approach? 

With the rise of digital technologies in everyday life and the growing market demand for people with at least basic knowledge of data visualization and analysis, I predict a steady increase of digital humanities. On the other hand, and here the humanities part of the “digital humanities” comes into play, we still need an excellent erudition in historical research, languages, and the reading of historical scripts. So, if anything could slow down the growth of digital humanities, it will more likely be the decline of this erudition, rather than resistance against digital technologies. The development of the labour market, technological progress, and the general increase in the utilization of technologies, as well as the trends within research funding and the way funding bodies assess work: these all speak in favour of growth within the digital humanities. The digital humanities do not need extra promotion nowadays. That is what specific areas of specialist and local knowledge need – these can survive in the libraries and archives, and they can be made more accessible via public digital environments, open to community annotations and discussions. But if there is no live community that will discuss them, the archives will become cemeteries, even the digital ones.

The road to receiving a grant like EXPRO is undoubtedly winding. What does the preparation of such an application look like? Is it significantly more difficult than a regular grant application in the Czech Republic?

My road to the EXPRO grant included two previous applications for one of the most prestigious European research grants, a Starting and then a Consolidator grant of European Research Council, commonly known as ERC. I submitted those in the years 2015 and 2018 respectively, and even though they were not successful, I learnt a lot by preparing them. Applying for the EXPRO grant then seemed like the next logical step. It was not more time-demanding and did not require more specific knowledge than a thoroughly thought-through application for a standard grant, but due to the team character of the project, I needed to think more about the practical organization and of course the set-up of the team; my administrative experience from the Department for the Study of Religions in Brno was invaluable here. The difficulties I faced came from a completely different direction. Perhaps the majority of my academic colleagues will confirm that, within an academic position, under the stress of teaching, deadlines, administrative demands, and a constant flow of emails, it is difficult to focus on research work and keep your CV and publications in proper shape, so that you can think about applying for grants. In the cases of EXPRO and ERC, there is an accent on the researcher as a person, and not on, for instance, a collaboration between universities. Of course, the application still has to be really well thought through; I have received no greater scrutiny of a proposal, not even from the ERC, than I got from EXPRO, where the application was evaluated by no less than seven experts from very diverse fields of research. A quality application is a necessity, but you also need a bit of luck with regard to the selection of the evaluators,  so that no one among them is predisposed to tear down your approach. Of course, very few people can get an EXPRO award as their first grant – the trust of evaluators in the principal investigator and in the whole project must logically follow from the previous publication activity, so there are some preliminaries such as previous grants, research stays abroad, publications in the international forums, stimulating intellectual and team environment within your department, and firm ties to the international discussion.

Since you have already applied for international grants, how would you compare applying for funding for such a ground-breaking project at a Czech and an international scale?

The documentation for the EXPRO grant is intentionally written in a way that is inspired by the ERC grants. After all, the main goal of this program is to increase the success rate of people applying for the ERC grants from the Czech Republic. The applications themself are therefore not very different. The main difference is not Czech vs. international but is rather found in where the grants lie on the spectrum between individual and consortium projects. Beyond this, a potential disadvantage of Czech grant applications might be that there your evaluators are selected from a smaller pool of people, and there is thus a higher potential for a conflict of interest. That is not the case with EXPRO, however, because it is – at least in my experience – evaluated exclusively by experts from abroad.

Do you have any general advice for our readers that might be considering applying for a grant? What should they avoid and what should they pay special attention to?

Read a lot during your studies, don’t regret the spent energy or time, don’t let yourself be dissuaded by your failures, travel abroad, systematically work on your CVs, strategically plan your publications, develop a wide network of people that will read your application with a critical eye. And above all: love your field of research!

There is also a newly established centre at the Department for the Study of Religions at the Masaryk University that covers projects which apply digital technologies on the study of religions. Could you introduce it to our readers?

Yes, during spring 2019, we have decided to establish a new Centre for Digital Research of Religion – CEDRR (https://religionistika.phil.muni.cz/cedrr). The primary motivation was to emphasize the common denominator of GEHIR, DISSINET and several student projects. Simply put, we came to a conclusion that a new significant research movement has been established at the department that has a big research potential and a great team behind it, and the time has come for it to be publicized.

Some of our readers from the ranks of Faculty of Arts students in Brno will certainly be intrigued by your research. What should they do if they would like to pursue similar research? Does your team organize any seminars? Are there some classes focusing on your topics?

We envisage CEDRR as a  workshop environment. If I recall correctly, the name and the whole idea came from Tomáš Hampejs. In our workshop, we emphasise a form of learning that is irregular and not covered by accredited courses and requirements etc. We put this into practice though occasional intensive and hands-on seminars – for instance, we had an introductory seminar on optical character recognition (OCR), helping researchers to enjoy better search functions within digital texts, and perhaps even helping with their analysis. We have also had a seminar on QGIS, a program that can be used for creating simple maps and for converting scanned maps into a fully-fledged and interactive digital form. From the more focused courses that have proved helpful to DISSINET, I could recommend the “Complex Networks” course at the Faculty of Informatics and the “Network Analysis in R” at the Faculty of Social Studies. “Digital Humanities in Medieval Studies” is an introductory overview course at the Faculty of Arts. Despite its name, it provides an overview of tools and skills that are not necessarily focused on medieval studies.

Since your new project is demanding in terms of time and attention, you have had to reduce your teaching curriculum at the Department for the Study of Religions. If any student was interested in writing a thesis related to digital humanities, could they still consult it with you or write it under your supervision?

Of course! I am very much interested in collaboration with students that are enthusiastic about their work and would like to work closely with DISSINET or CEDRR.

What are your goals after the current grant funding ends? Do you plan a follow-up to DISSINET, perhaps its expansion, or is there any other topic that has your attention and you would like to focus on it?

In the current state of things, I would like to develop two main research directions. One of them is the expansion of DISSINET within a follow-up project (ideally an ERC grant, but that is a high goalpost). The other one seeks to build a group of students focused on the various corpora of Christian literature. That project is called AUCTORITATES, after the Latin term for authoritative quotes adopted from other sources; it is concerned with automatic detection of authoritative citations from other sources in Christian literature and, similarly to DISSINET, aims to achieve a synergy between a broad quantitative perspective and a historically informed, deep qualitative perspective. There are already many topics related to this project that I have begun to work on and even some preliminary international collaborations. But as the Bible says: “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few.” [Matt. 9.37]

Thank you for the interview and for your time. We wish you and your whole team many research successes and interesting discoveries!

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