What is Microhistory?
Historians have yet to develop a comprehensive and conclusive definition for the term “microhistory,” largely because it remains on the fringe of current historical study. The evolution of microhistorical study in different regions across Europe and North America and in a variety of languages has further compounded the problem, leading, in some cases, to further ambiguity (Ginzburg, 1993). Its origin, however, is clear. The movement of historians, particularly those educated in Europe, towards a microhistorical approach to studying history developed from a political and cultural debate occurring in the social sciences in the 1970s and 1980s. As historians began to focus on social rather than economic factors, it became clear that certain “political events and social realities” could not be explained adequately by existing macrohistorical models (Levi, 1991). In essence, historical histories did not account for the experiences of all members of the event, society, or culture being studied. As a result, microhistorians have made a point of viewing people not as a group, but rather as “individuals who must not be lost either within the historical processes or in anonymous crowds” (Iggers, 1997).
Focusing on the individual rather than the group also has led microhistorians to focus on the “margins” of power rather than the centre (Iggers, 1997). For microhistorians, this has included examining the lives and experiences of the disadvantaged and exploited, individuals who are often neglected by macrohistorical studies and who rarely fit the existing or resulting model. This examination, however, is not limited to people. It also emphasizes the intensive study of “single, tough, often isolated places, and extraordinary – though often historically ‘insignificant’ – events" (Woodward, 2003). By doing so, microhistorians have attempted to formulate a history of everyday life. The methodology used in examining the lives of marginalized people is often referred to as “thick description,” a technique often used by cultural anthropologists like Clifford Geertz (Levi, 1991). Rather than attempting to fit the individuals’ experiences into preconceived social histories, Geertz advocates the use of microscopic analysis as a means of generating conclusions that are applicable to a greater percentage of the general population. The primary challenge faced by microhistorians when developing these histories of everyday life is a lack of reference material. The marginalized subjects of their studies have left few traces or documents regarding their lives and experiences and those who have may not be representative of the sector of the population under consideration. Even the protagonist in Ginzburg’s celebrated work The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller left behind an unusually abundant collection of personal information, leading some to question whether this literate “miller” was typical of the marginalized class.
Perhaps the most common and identifiable characteristic of microhistory is its reduction of scale, as suggested by the prefix “micro.” Rather than describing and analyzing broad topics, such as the American Civil War, microhistorians focus on specific events, such as Pickett’s Charge, which occurred within the context of broader fields of study. According to historian Ronald Hoffman, “it is much like the poet William Blake's injunction to see a world in a grain of sand" (Woodward, 2003). It is important, however, not to confuse microhistory with local history or biography. Both use a similar research methodology but fail to connect specific events with broader social contexts, another important but less obvious characteristic of microhistory. Hoffman states: “Microhistory scrutinizes isolated topics to come to grips with the larger universe of historical circumstances and transformations" (Woodward, 2003). Unless Stewart analyzes Pickett’s Charge within the context of the American Civil War, his work, although well researched and intriguing, would fail to meet the requirements of microhistory and could be described only as “anecdotal antiquarianism.”
In addition to including the margins of power in the historical record, microhistory also has attempted to make history more appealing to the general public by making its research transparent and by utilizing unconventional presentation methods. Transparency is achieved by providing the reader with specific references so that the work does not appear as the author’s biased interpretations of historical events. Although this practice is useful and necessary in legitimizing all historical work, it is particularly relevant to micro histories, which often present their subject in an unconventional manner. The Cheese and the Worms, for example, employs a first person narrative to attract the reader and maintain his attention as Ginzburg relates the experiences of a menial and “historically insignificant” miller. Although this trend may compromise the perceived legitimacy of microhistorical works, it may be crucial for studies of mundane life to explore innovative means for generating interest in the subject matter. This is perhaps the best reason microhistorians have for forging a strong relationship between history and the Internet.
Microhistory, as a subfield of history, has the potential to become a valuable field of study as increasing numbers of students enter post-secondary and graduate education in Canada and the world. By examining the history of everyday life, microhistory is providing historians with a new, possibly paradigmatic, dimension to traditional research that addresses directly many of the current criticisms leveled at history in general. Whereas traditional macrohistorical studies often gloss over “insignificant” people and events that do not conform to mainstream theses, microhistory advocates the intensive study of the ordinary as well as the extraordinary, the fringe as well as the center. Although substantial historical generalizations may be elusive from microhistorical studies, the transparency associated with these studies, combined with their emphasis on “thick description,” likely makes the resulting analyses more objective and less a representation of the author’s personal/professional biases, values, and political beliefs. As an innovative field of study, microhistory also has been characterized as highly innovative, particularly with regard to methods of presentation. These tangible advantages have thus far been largely unsuccessful in establishing microhistory as a legitimate and worthy subfield of historical study.
The relationship between micro and macro history is very similar to that of websites and the Internet as a whole. Micro history takes a specific look at a place, person or event in history that illustrates or explains larger themes in macro history. For example a micro history on a particular naval port of the British Empire would contribute to an understanding of the British navy as a whole. Similarly, a website is only one small piece of the ever expansive Internet that is made up of many linking sites that cover larger themes or topics. For instance one may find a website of a favourite hockey team connected to a larger NHL site as well to sites of other teams. The similarities that occur between micro history and websites make the Internet an excellent medium through which micro history can be displayed and understood. As Victoria’s Victoria grows its websites will link together to illustrate a broad picture of what Victoria was like during Queen Victoria’s reign. In turn, Victoria’s Victoria can link to other groups of websites about other colonial cities so as to show a wide picture of the empire, or to micro histories of other North American towns to piece together the development of North America.
There are a great number of benefits to putting micro history on the Internet. The most beneficial aspect of putting micro histories on the Internet is the communication and collaboration that can take place. Micro historians from around the world can link their research with other work to build web communities that explain a variety of different macro histories. Ideas and findings can be shared through websites and contribute to or aid in other historians’ work without the time and cost involved in publishing material, collaborating over phone or by mail, and travelling. Putting micro history on the Internet also makes for easy access to information, as well as exposure for historians’ papers or studies. Without the Internet historians may have to wait for conferences to have such great access to such a large amount of information and ideas all at once. Additionally, micro history on the Internet gives the general public access to information they normally would not be able to find as easily. A good micro history website can introduce anyone to a given topic. Websites allow for a more dynamic presentation of historical material through reproduction of primary sources, and reader interaction. Finally, putting micro history on the Internet is an excellent way to demonstrate that micro history is a number of parts that make up a whole, and make more people aware of and interested in it.
Micro history on the web does have some problems. As when dealing with any sources for information a researcher has to be careful of the reliability of a website since anyone can put anything they want onto the Internet quite easily. A researcher has to identify the author of the site and assess their credibility and the credibility of the sources they used. Lack of control of information put on the Internet can also be a problem. Facts, photos, or other information posted on a micro history website is available to the world, which is generally a positive aspect of the web, and the idea behind posting that information in the first place. However, there is the possibility of plagiarism, or images being used for purposes they were not intended for. In Addition, websites are written in a different style than an essay or book would be. Micro history on the web can be limited as it is hard to have a lot of in depth discussion on a website because a viewer does not want to spend a long time staring at a computer screen to read an entire essay. Another difficulty with using the Internet to display micro history is the time it takes to build up enough websites to make a good micro history community on the web that can illustrate the entire macro historical picture. Nevertheless, this is a minor problem as any major project takes time and once a micro history community is started it can only grow.
Overall micro history and the web are very well suited for one another because of the relationship between micro history and a website and macro history and the web. Although the Internet cannot be the only place micro history is displayed, it is an excellent medium through which to display micro history, give a starting point for research, create an interest in micro history, and develop and understanding of what micro history is, and what its relationship to macro history is. It takes time to develop micro history communities that can do all of these things, but once they are started they can become a vast source of information and can only develop and improve as time goes by.
Discuss the Advantages and Disadvantages of Microhistory
The advantages and disadvantages of microhistory are not inherent within the method but rather are contingent upon the question that is being answered. Brad Gregory helpfully uses the analogy of a painting to demonstrate this point. If examined closely the brushstrokes of a painting can reveal more of the artist’s technique and therefore helps us to understand the piece in greater depth. However, if a painting is observed too closely it will become incomprehensible as a work of art. If one were, for example, attempting to understand inter-communal violence during the French Wars of Religion, then a microhistory would be a perfect method to objectively reveal the agendas of individuals and groups within those communities. However, if one were researching religious violence and tolerance in France during the early modern period than a microhistory methodology is extremely limited. Some may argue that such longue durée approaches are unhelpful and create abstractions of the past. However, they are ultimately a necessary part of understanding broader trends and processes in history. Therefore microhistory is an advantageous methodology to utilise in answer to specific historical enquiries, yet it has severe limitations when applied to a larger scale or time period.
The question, “what is microhistory?” must be addressed. As Richard Brown highlights, the question is not as clear as it would first appear. Carlo Ginzburg, who popularised the school of Italian microhistory, with the study The Cheese and the Worms, originally accepted the term to simply refer to the smaller scale suggested by the prefix “micro”. However, the term and the methodology has taken on a greater meaning as it has become an increasingly popular trend within the historical discipline. The first historian to use the term microhistory was George R. Stewart in reference to his study of the last charge of the Battle of Gettysburg. Pickett’s Charge is an in depth study of the climax of the final battle of the Civil War, written in obsessive microscopic detail, the book describes the last fifteen hours of the battle. Certainly, there is no doubt that Stewart’s historical study is micro in its scale and methodology, yet it is debatable whether such a text could be labelled microhistory. In order to avoid the charges of antiquarianism that is often levelled at microhistories, proponents of the approach have asserted that microhistory’s aim is to create a clearer picture of the broader enquiries by intensive investigations into representative localities. It is doubtful that Stewart’s unique approach reveals a great amount about the wider context of the Civil War, consequently it is perhaps more of an exercise in fact collecting than in microhistory. Perhaps of greater significance than the scale of the investigation, is the emphasis that microhistory puts on the agency of groups and individuals and their contingency within the contemporary social, economic, political and religious circumstances. Therefore microhistory changes our understanding of traditional longue durée narratives by returning the particularities to events which have been incorporated into broader perspectives. Whilst microhistory can offer a fresh perspective in this way, there are limitations on its ability to develop our understanding beyond the locality upon which the study focuses on.
There are a number of significant reasons why microhistory has become increasingly utilised by historians over the last few decades. These reasons also demonstrate the ways in which microhistory can be advantageous in answer to certain historical enquiries or agendas. The first provocation for the development of microhistory was the increasing use of longue durée and structuralist histories. Longue durée histories take a broad perspective over large geographies and time periods in order to identify patterns, ideologies or mechanisms which influence human behaviour and events during certain epochs. Therefore these histories often present individuals and groups as dominated by contemporary discourse and ideology. Moreover, events are often generalised in order to fit them within over-arching processes. Many microhistories were created to combat Braudelian structures that claimed to have shaped individual’s fates. Although microhistory is extremely useful to correct overly generalised teleology, it is not simply a corrective method. Rather microhistory is distinctive for returning human agency to the “big questions” of history and by doing so reshapes the narrative. Indeed Naomi Lamoreaux argues that for an alternative model to have any force it must go beyond a critique to create a different understanding.
Microhistory has also become popular for its political uses. Particularly for leftist historians using a smaller scale of investigation has allowed them to question the now orthodox teleology of the modernising process. By the 1970s the notion of a mass liberation of the oppressed proletariat became increasingly improbable. Therefore by returning the agency back to individuals and groups, leftist microhistorians could oppose the supposed inevitability of the capitalist process. Indeed, microhistory is a powerful tool in political debates. All political systems of thought are supported by a teleological narrative that justify their existence and prove their value for the current society. Therefore, by narrowing the field of investigation, microhistory allows one to find the exception to teleological narrative and siege the political justification with the concrete evidence that a smaller scale enables. In this way the battle between the longue durée approach and microhistory is as much a struggle for power in the present as it is a quest for a truer understanding of the past.
Furthermore, microhistories have been used by historians to combat the post-modern challenge. Post-modernism has raised doubts about whether history can truly represent reality in the past. The sources that historians use are so subjective in the creation and their survival so by chance, can they really be called representative? Moreover, the subjects historians choose to cover, the sources they select and how they employ them are entirely contingent on the biases and perspectives of both readers and author. The suggestion has been that history is at best a signpost to the reality that the author perceives and at worst a work of fiction. In answer to this challenge Richard Brown has suggested that microhistory is an effective tool which historians can use to regain their standing. As microhistory operates on a smaller scale it is less selective in its choice of sources and places a greater emphasis on placing the evidence within its contemporary context. As a consequence of the methodology used in microhistory it is less open to criticisms of subjectivity as it can bring a detailed account of evidence to its claims.
Despite its valuable utilities microhistory still has severe limitations. If microhistory is applied to a line of enquiry that it does not suit it, the outcome will ultimately be misrepresentative. Brown uses the metaphor to explain this process; if one were to measure the coastline of the United States in inches including every tiny contour, the length of the coast would be far larger than we understand it to be. Clearly inches are the wrong form of measurement to be used here as a large scale geography requires a larger scale measurement, and so it is with history. If microhistory is used to understand the changing attitudes towards Jews in Germany from the early modern period to the present day, it would fail to be representative as the focusing of microscopic detail on a few localities cannot give context to attitudes and events across that scale of space and time. One city would have a rather different experience from the others and without a broad overview to encapsulate these experiences, microhistory would fallaciously render them homogenous. Therefore microhistory can only be advantageous when the scale of investigation is narrow which means it can only be used to answer certain questions. David Nirenberg in Communites of Violence does suggest that such teleological questions, such as the one mentioned above, are misleading in themselves as a microhistory would reveal that such attitudes and experiences cannot be put together in one narrative. Yet without such questions and longue durée histories we are deprived of a broader understanding of German nationalism, in a similar way as we would be deprived of a large scale understanding of the USA’s coast if we measured it in inches.
As previously stated Naomi Lamoreaux, has astutely argued that it is not enough for microhistory to be a corrective tool. If it is to be recognised an alternative historiographical method it must alter our understanding, which means it must tackle the big questions of history, as other disciplines attempt to. Yet this raises issues for microhistory, as the big questions in history are rarely about the significance of one small locality and the interactions that occurred between its residents. The big questions (or rather significant questions) in history cover large geographies and multiple events, all spaced across long periods of time, that is why they are significant questions because they are relevant to a wider audience. Yet for microhistory to answer such questions it must be able to do an in depth study on a small area that is representative of the whole coverage of the enquiry. This raises serious issues as Brad Gregory states ‘creating a broader picture based on microhistorical studies would make the traditional problem of relating local studies to large-scale phenomena pale by comparison.’ Though advocates of microhistory like Richard Brown claim that microhistory is interested making connections with the broader understanding of history, the methodology that is involved can create a rather misleading picture.
One of the greatest pull factors for microhistory is its claim to recreate the experience and interactions of the lives lived in the past. Rather than studying institutions and faceless ideologies, microhistory claims to give individuals of the past a voice. Yet can microhistory actually fulfil such claims? The documents that survive in villages are often baptism records, birth records, tax records, court records, etc, yet these records can hardly claim to represent the nuances and intimate interactions that culminate the experience of life. Therefore, it must be questioned whether microhistory, or indeed any form of history, could really recreate the experience of a life and give human agency to historical processes. Certainly few of us would agree that the documentation that we have accumulated on ourselves through our lives, could give a true account of our experience of living.
Finally, increased use of microhistory gives life to the claim that “historians know more and more about less and less”. Arguably it is important for historians to adopt a broader approach than microhistory allows, in order to create a greater understanding of the global community that we live in presently. It is also necessary to have a larger scale perspective as this is more accessible for those not familiar with the discipline. Despite the best efforts of authors, it can be extremely confusing to read a microhistory as an introduction to a new subject as it rarely gives the context necessary to obtain a base of knowledge. Therefore, if microhistory was the only history that was available, this discipline would be inaccessible and fragmentary. A further danger of the increasing use of microhistory is a return to antiquarianism. As greater emphasis is put on the evidence, microscopic detail, and critique of teleology, some microhistories are more concerned with historical facts than historical truths. Thus microhistories can lose their relevance to the present in their attempt to resurrect the experience of the past.
In conclusion, microhistory is undeniably a valuable tool at the hand of the modern historian, yet only when used for the right kind of enquiry. Microhistory can fundamentally change our understanding of narratives that have long been based on a large scale view of history which have missed the nuances that tell a different story. Moreover, by restoring human agency to the events, ideologies, institutions and processes of the past, microhistory reengages humanity in history. Yet using microhistories to create a broader picture or to tackle questions of great scale, is like putting a square peg into a round hole and will mislead the audience with the very generalisations it attempts to combat.
Brown, Richard D. 'Microhistory And The Post-Modern Challenge'. Journal of the Early Republic 23.1 (2003): 1. Web.
Ginzburg, Carlo, John Tedeschi, and Anne C. Tedeschi. 'Microhistory: Two Or Three Things That I Know About It'. CRIT INQUIRY 20.1 (1993): 10. Web.
Nirenberg, David. Communities Of Violence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. Print.
Gregory, Brad S. 'Is Small Beautiful? Microhistory And The History Of Everyday Life'. History and Theory 38.1 (1999): 100-110. Web.
Lamoreaux, Naomi R. 'Rethinking Microhistory: A Comment'. Journal of the Early Republic 26.4 (2006): 555-561. Web.
Moore, R. I. The Formation Of A Persecuting Society. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Print.
Stewart, George R. Pickett's Charge. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959. Print.
 Gregory, Brad S. 'Is Small Beautiful? Microhistory And The History Of Everyday Life'. History and Theory 38.1 (1999) pp.100
 Nirenberg, David. Communities Of Violence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.
 Brown, Richard D. 'Microhistory And The Post-Modern Challenge'. Journal of the Early Republic 23.1 (2003) pp.11
 Ginzburg, Carlo, John Tedeschi, and Anne C. Tedeschi. 'Microhistory: Two Or Three Things That I Know About It'. CRIT INQUIRY 20.1 (1993) pp.10
 Ginzburg, Carlo, John Tedeschi, and Anne C. Tedeschi. 'Microhistory: Two Or Three Things That I Know About It'. CRIT INQUIRY 20.1 (1993) pp.11
 Stewart, George R. Pickett's Charge. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959. Print.
 Nirenberg, David. Communities Of Violence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996. pp.7
 Moore, R. I. The Formation Of A Persecuting Society. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. pp.145
 Braudel, Fernand. Civilization And Capitalism, 15Th-18Th Century. New York: Harper & Row, 1982.
 Gregory, Brad S. 'Is Small Beautiful? Microhistory And The History Of Everyday Life'. History and Theory 38.1 (1999) pp.105
 Lamoreaux, Naomi R. 'Rethinking Microhistory: A Comment'. Journal of the Early Republic 26.4 (2006) pp.556
 Gregory, Brad S. 'Is Small Beautiful? Microhistory And The History Of Everyday Life'. History and Theory 38.1 (1999) pp.101
 Brown, Richard D. 'Microhistory And The Post-Modern Challenge'. Journal of the Early Republic 23.1 (2003) pp.10
 Brown, Richard D. 'Microhistory And The Post-Modern Challenge'. Journal of the Early Republic 23.1 (2003) pp.9
 Nirenberg, David. Communities Of Violence. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996.
 Lamoreaux, Naomi R. 'Rethinking Microhistory: A Comment'. Journal of the Early Republic 26.4 (2006) pp.556
 Gregory, Brad S. 'Is Small Beautiful? Microhistory And The History Of Everyday Life'. History and Theory 38.1 (1999) pp.108
 Brown, Richard D. 'Microhistory And The Post-Modern Challenge'. Journal of the Early Republic 23.1 (2003) pp.13
 Gregory, Brad S. 'Is Small Beautiful? Microhistory And The History Of Everyday Life'. History and Theory 38.1 (1999) pp.107
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