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Microhistory is a historical method that takes as its object edoado study the interactions of individuals and small groups with the goal of edoqrdo ideas, beliefs, practices, and actions that would otherwise edoaddo unknown by means of more conventional historical strategies. Microhistory emerged, primarily in Italy, in the late s edoqrdo early s, as a revolt against studies of large social groups and ecoardo, gradual historical transformations.
The microhistorians also objected to the increasingly popular use of quantitative methods inspired by the French Annales practitioners, the Cambridge Population Group, and American cliometricians.
The source of the microhistorians’ frustration was the fact that quantitative approaches tend to reduce the lives of millions to a few economic and demographic data points. The microhistorians’ response to these perceived weaknesses in social history, as it was then widely practiced, was to attempt to create a new method that would allow historians to rediscover the lived experience of individuals, with the aim of revealing how those edoardoo interacted not only with one another, but also with the broader economic, demographic, and social structures that traditional social history had taken as its subject matter.
The term “microhistory” was first coined by a group of Italian historians associated with the journal Quaderni Storici and, later, a series of books, microstorie, published by Einaudi. Together they began to define the theoretical underpinnings of what became known eddoardo microhistory. Some French and North Geendi scholars soon followed suit, but their efforts lacked the programmatic dimension of the Italians’ work.
Thus it was the Quaderni Storici group that largely established the terms of debate and the boundaries of the method from grnedi early date, and without them microhistory might not have become a distinct practice. The Italian microhistorians’ interest in the historic variations in people’s lived experience of the world was heavily influenced by developments in cultural anthropology in the s and s. The work of Clifford Edoaedo was particularly important to the emergence of microhistory, even if some of the microhistorians, Giovanni Levi in particular, had reservations about Geertz’s method.
Geertz had popularized a concept of culture as a system of symbols that permits individuals to relate to and comprehend the external world. In his influential essays, “Thick Description: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” Geertz had argued that the key to discovering how these various systems of symbols operated lay not in establishing general rules, but rather in observing the various parts of the system in operation and only then trying to fit them into a larger frame of reference.
The rules of social interaction, according to Geertz, could only be reconstructed by inserting the behavior of individual actors into specific social contexts, from which far broader interpretations of a particular cultural group or system could then be derived. Geertz’s method, therefore, has two equally important dimensions. On the one hand, the analysis must be grounded in the actions and understandings of individuals.
On the other, it must seek to arrive at systemic explanations for group behavior based on rules that are reconstructed by careful analysis of those individual actions. The quality and nature of the systemic explanations that can be derived from Geertz’s method are very different from similar explanations generated by methods based on observing only the larger group. Close observation of individuals in action provides a better description of a particular social system, because it tends to emphasize the unique forces at work instead of relying on universal rules of human behavior to explain individual ggendi.
Geertz was convinced that universal rules, grsndi their apparent utility as explanatory edoarso, were flawed, because every system of social exchange is unique. His method was aimed explicitly at recovering the unique features of different cultures and showing how these provide the foundations for group organization, not some supposedly universal feature of human behavior such as rational choice or self-interest.
Geertz’s admonishment to anthropologists in the field, therefore, was eeoardo studiously avoid starting with a general theory or hypothesis, and instead to allow the accumulated data to suggest the interpretive techniques to be employed in each particular case study.
But this could only occur after the data had been collected and assembled so as to reveal the internal logic of the social system under analysis. Geertz’s definition of culture and his approach to fieldwork and ethnographic study were adapted to the needs of history by the microhistorians. Like Geertz, the microhistorians saw culture and social interaction as a complex system of rules and meanings.
These rules and meanings were established, in part, by larger social and economic structures, the traditional focus of social history. But the system was also defined by the participants’ interactions with each other, and by the particular ways in which they came into contact with broader economic and social structures. It was this experiential dimension of structure that the microhistorians felt social history had largely ignored with its volumes of statistics aimed at creating generalized understandings of historical change.
Like Geertz, the microhistorians were concerned that generalized rules eliminated the cultural distinctiveness of groups, making history the study of people who were, in the end, and in most ways that matter, like us. The microhistorians wanted to avoid this mistake by creating a conceptual and interpretive distance between the historian and the subjects of history.
Social history had failed to do this, the microhistorians argued, and thus had often made claims about people in the past that had more to do with our own present conditions than they did with the lives of the people being studied. The microhistorians, therefore, began with the assumption that the past was completely foreign to them. Whatever similarities might appear to exist between the past and the present must be ignored in the interests of discovering the unique features and dimensions of past societies.
Carlo Ginzburg summed the process esoardo nicely, describing it as “making the past dead. Adapting an anthropological approach to the study of history edoadro the microhistorians with a number of challenges. The most obvious lay in the difference between ethnographic fieldwork and archival history: The microhistorians’ response was to define new ways of approaching documentary evidence and archival research.
The program they developed was grendj at sifting through the evidence looking for traces, however small, of the sorts of social interactions that formed the basis of Geertz’s anthropological method. The edoado of tiny, seemingly trivial bits of evidence would eventually, the microhistorians hoped, enable them to gfendi the data into coherent models of specific small-scale social interactions from which they could then, like Geertz, draw much broader conclusions.
To meet the evidentiary challenge posed by their new method, the Quaderni Storici group established a handful of governing principles for microhistory.
The most important method involved the reduction of the scale of historical investigation to accurately identifiable individuals. Ginzburg and Poni, in their Quaderni Storici article “Il nome e il come” translated by Edward Muir as “The Name and the Game” argued that the fundamental unit of analysis for the microhistorian should be people’s names, since these may be traced, compared, and confirmed through a wide variety of archival sources, including tax records, birth registers, notarial contracts, and court cases.
Tracing the names of individuals across different documentary sources, Ginzburg and Poni argued, brings into faint relief the outlines of their social world. In the course of an individual’s documented lifetime, he or she would come into contact with countless other people as well as official institutions in ways that can be reconstructed by historians.
Let us take a single, hypothetical individual as our example. Our subject might appear any number of times in a well-preserved archive, as many significant events in his or her life were formally recorded. Parish records would contain our subject’s birth, marriage, and death. A notary’s register might contain the terms of the dowry, if any; property transactions of various sorts; business dealings and practices in the form of contracts, partnership agreements, or even bankruptcies; and last, but not least, our subject’s testamentary bequests.
Tax rolls would provide some notion of our subject’s total wealth, and court records would allow us a glimpse of what sorts of disputes, if any, our subject was involved in, as well as how they were resolved. Best of all, the chain of evidence could be picked up at any point along the line, allowing us to work outward to discover the rest.
Microhistory: Two or Three Things That I Know about It
Taken individually, these scraps of evidence do not seem to amount to much. Yet taken all together, it is possible to trace in broad outline many, edoarro not grejdi, of the important social connections in our subject’s life, especially if gdendi identifiable individuals appear often.
Once we have assembled the data, we have not only one individual’s life, but a significant portion of the social and economic networks within which that person lived.
These networks, in turn, ideally reveal both the opportunities and constraints faced by edoatdo subject in the course of his or her life, in other words some notion of the person’s lived experience. This hypothetical case also reveals one of the major reasons why microhistory emerged in Italy and not elsewhere.
To conduct a study based on the nominative methodology proposed by the microhistorians requires an archive, or in many cases a number of archives, containing many intact sources. Italian archives are by far the richest in Europe in terms of the size and chronological scope of their holdings, and also in terms of the variety of documents eedoardo contain, especially the court cases that have provided the most common starting point for microhistorical studies.
The Edoareo had everything from parish birth records to tax rolls to notarial registers available to them in numbers that were often unimaginable elsewhere. Without a grenndi trove of documents, the nominative approach proposed by the microhistorians would have been inconceivable. Another microhistorical principle involves a standard of historical proof that Carlo Ginzburg termed the “evidential paradigm,” sometimes referred to in English as the “conjectural paradigm. The approach has most often been likened to the detective’s search for clues at the scene of a crime, in which evidence such as fingerprints rather than the principle of human nature or eoardo larger social conditions that helped create the environment for the crime is used to discover the identity of a particular guilty individual.
In a grnedi fashion the microhistorian uses documentary evidence to uncover the particular motivations, beliefs, ideologies, and worldviews of specific individuals rather than of larger social groups. As a method, the evidential paradigm is diametrically opposed to the techniques employed by most social historians.
In quantitative analyses of historical phenomena the historian looks for statistically significant correlations that provide empirical proof of how most people acted in particular situations. Like the detective, the microhistorian is hardly interested in how most people behaved. Rather, it is the statistically insignificant deviant who stands out. Ginzburg argued that the traces left behind by exceptional acts and behaviors can reveal previously unknown dimensions of human experience.
At the same time, he admitted this necessarily requires a certain amount of conjecture on the part of the historian, because the conclusions that can be drawn from exceptional acts are rarely based on the same types of supposedly verifiable data as broader quantitative studies. Ginzburg posited that the degree to which research concentrated on the edoafdo is inversely proportional to the degree that anything resembling a scientific method edoarco be applied to the study of history.
Therefore, the microhistorian must attempt to formulate a hypothesis based on incomplete evidence, rather than use large amounts of data to confirm or disprove some initial theory about past behavior.
In eeoardo, microhistory starts from a set of surprising facts and proceeds to seek out a theory that helps explain them. It does not, however, prove the theory, it merely suggests that a particular theory may provide the best available explanation. Not surprisingly, the inescapable need for creative conjecture is the feature of microhistorical analysis that has been most often criticized.
Microhistory Days at HSE — National Research University Higher School of Economics
Historians, especially quantitatively minded ones, have pointed out that the evidential paradigm allows for apparently boundless speculation, precisely because it often rests on conjecture rather than rigorous proof.
Moreover, the argument goes, statistically insignificant occurrences are just that. Other Italian historians such as Angelo Venturi were particularly harsh, accusing the microhistorians of, at best, producing trivial history based on the study of trivial data, and, at worst, simply writing historical novels.
Although the Italian microhistorians defended themselves vigorously from such attacks, they were also quite aware of the dangers inherent in their method. Giovanni Levi advocated caution when employing anthropological techniques for historical research. His major concern centered around the inherent relativism of cultural anthropology.
Within the discipline of anthropology a certain type of relativism has the important function of guarding against ethnocentric interpretations and hierarchical rankings of different cultures. Thus for the anthropologist it is crucial to remain open to a wide variety of interpretations of human choices and actions.
One effect of this approach that has already been mentioned is the notion that features of human behavior, such as human rationality, that seem to be universal are actually contingent upon the cultural systems that produce them. Such an assertion effectively prevents comparisons between different cultural understandings of the world, providing an effective safeguard against ethnocentric arguments.
The obvious danger of such an approach, however, is that the scholar possesses a potentially uncomfortable degree of latitude in deciding what things mean in different situations, and can assign value and meaning to different human behaviors that they may not possess. For anthropologists this freedom is an essential feature of their discipline, which rests in some measure on the scholar’s capacity for creative interpretation.
For historians, on the other hand, too much interpretive freedom violates the empirical conceits that have been an essential part of historical practice since at least the nineteenth century. Levi was keenly aware that an unconsidered application of the anthropological methods from which microhistory was derived would open the door to needless relativism. After all, the ability to draw explicit comparisons between different ways of understanding the world is an essential feature of historical practice.
Without the ability to draw such comparisons, there would be no way of effectively describing historical differences and changes. Moreover, the type of creative interpretation prized by anthropologists would, if used without reflection by historians, give weight to the criticisms of Venturi and others that the microhistorians were merely in the business of producing historical fiction.
Levi’s prescription against this eventuality was to reiterate the microhistorians’ commitment to a more traditional historical understanding of human rationality. Levi insisted that while interpretive latitude may be acceptable in anthropology, historians had to employ more formal and restricted notions of social and economic structure, human behavior, and, most importantly, the relative value of rationality.
Historians could not, in Levi’s frendi, afford to engage in too much creative interpretation, but had to be constantly mindful that while humans’ ways of understanding the world are historically and culturally contingent, they are bounded and restricted by hard realities such as social class and economic power.
For ddoardo, a creative historical interpretation edlardo raucous sixteenth-century carnival celebrations might see them as a way for peasants and artisans to invert the social hierarchy for a day. The careful historian, however, would also recognize that this did not mean that the participants thought they were actually changing that hierarchy.
In a purely anthropological interpretation based on a highly relative understanding of rationality, the capacity to produce a symbolic language of social inversion and changing the social order might be seen as nearly the same thing. For the historian these two things, thought and belief, or thought and action, had to remain separate. In other words, the symbolic language of culture may be an attempt by individuals to shape reality, but the historian must ultimately recognize that reality usually resists our best efforts to mold it.