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.