The Microhistorical ApproachThis website's theme is based on the Historical concept known as Microhistory, a diverse field which, generally speaking, rejects a conception of History as based on the pseudo-scientific analysis of large-scale societal trends interpreted from statistical data. Microhistorians seek to reconstruct the experiences and interactions of individual people (and especially 'average' people, that is to say, those not within the powerful elite at a given time) and, by 'reading between the lines' of what they have left behind, hopefully find out something more about not only what their lives were like (including how they conceived of their own existence), but also about the basis of larger societal phenomena at the level of everyday life.
Microhistory has been defined by Edward Muir as "a genre...devoted to social relationships and interactions among historical persons who, in contrast to analytic categories, actually existed and who experienced life as a series of events." [note]
In order to distil evidence of this type into the deepest possible insights about the past, care should be taken to construct as fully as possible the intellectual outlook of historical figures at the time they lived with little to no reference to the outlook of the author's time. [note] In this process, writes prominent microhistorian Carlo Ginzburg, we should not be deterred by the so-called lack of objectivity of a source - he reminds us that a historian should be skilled enough to glean useful insights about a past person's intellectual world from documents left by them which show their process of evaluating the world from their unique point of view. [note]
We should add here that it is the Italian school of microhistory, of which Ginzburg is probably the most prominent representative, whose ideas are most salient in this website. Also notable is the microhistorical approach to what we should consider a 'typical' person or incident in the past, and even whether or not typicality is required of a particular subject in order to be useful. In fact, some microhistorians argue, we can often learn much about a 'normal' or 'average' experience by examining that which is considered abnormal, and asking why it was so. [note] On this website, for example, we might posit that the unruly behaviour of blacksmith Peter Bartleman illuminates clearly that the typical HBC servant was expected to be obedient and to do as the company dictated; Bartleman reveals this expectation not by embodying it, but rather by shunning it, and leaving us with the evidence of how his abnormal behaviour was perceived and dealt with.
In any case, the fact that microhistory concentrates on individuals, and even 'atypical' individuals, does not mean that it has nothing to say about the wider world. A microhistorian may discover much that he believes can be applied to past societies as a whole from his explorations of a few individuals. Microhistory simply argues that there must be an exchange between the wider scene and the world of the individual, and that the stories of individuals should not be buried under a mountain of hypotheses and statistics about societal trends. [note] Furthermore, microhistorians also stress that in looking at small-scale data, we often reveal ruptures in history between settings and times - indeed, this difficulty in generalization based on masses of data was partly responsible for Microhistory's emergence! [note]
Our website follows this philosophy - we hope that our characters demonstrate ideas and institutions that were important and widespread elements of the British Empire during its heyday, but at the same time we emphasize that the study of the lives of our characters as individuals generates useful data, in its own right, about the experience of living during the 1850s and 1860s - regardless of what they may or may not tell us about Imperial processes in a wider sense.