Digitalization provides the humanities with the opportunity to study human cultural output at a large scale. However, if the digital humanities aim to do more than merely gather data, they will require a theoretical framework. Such a framework should 1) provide us with an overarching ontology, that is an general description of the studied phenomena; 2) give an indication of the causal processes and factors involved; and, in satisfying conditions 1 and 2, 3) enable us to integrate the various studies in digital humanities. I propose cultural epidemiology as a likely candidate for such a framework.
This theory proposes that culture is not as an entity, but a property of representations that are shaped and distributed through chains of social transmission. It thus accounts for macro-scale cultural phenomena in terms of micro-scale processes. This view lies implicit in the digital humanities where cultural macro-scale patterns are studied by tracking individual tokens. The ontology proposed by cultural epidemiology thus sits well with the basic methodology of the digital humanities. Furthermore, cultural epidemiology helps to identify and investigate the causal underpinnings of phenomena studied in digital humanities. If one wants to account for cultural phenomena, one has to explain why people systematically prefer, reconstruct and communicate particular representations. What factors play a role in particular cases remains a matter of empirical inquiry and requires input from various disciplines. As such, cultural epidemiology makes possible the integration of the digital humanities with all other disciplines that are concerned with the study of human culture.