Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Microhistory: What It Is, and What It's Good For (1)

Kim Tolley, a professor of education at Notre Dame de Namur University in California, describes her recently-published monograph, Heading South to Teach, as a “microhistory,”[1] one that relates “the life and times of Susan Nye Hutchison (1790-1867) a northern farmer’s daughter who taught in North Carolina and Georgia during the era of religious revival known as the Second Great Awakening.”[2]

Tolley explains that at one level, her work is about a seemingly-ordinary woman who did some extraordinary things. But at another level, she writes, “this book is about the significance of religion and education in antebellum American society and culture.”[3] Tolley offers a bit more information about the microhistorical method.[4] Still, upon reading Heading South to Teach, which is a fine piece of work at any rate, would even a credentialed historian know if the book does what a microhistory is supposed to do? Is the label appropriate in this case?

These kinds of questions have cropped up partly because microhistory has not always been well defined. While it may be that some of the imprecision is unavoidable, even preferable, it is also true that implicit definitions of the term have not always been consistent or well understood.[5]

The purpose of this series is to respond to a few central questions about microhistory. First, where did this approach come from? What kinds of goals were associated with the origins of microhistory? Second, what sorts of misunderstandings and criticisms have accompanied the rise of microhistory? How might those who see the potential of this method eliminate typical misunderstandings and respond adequately to the hard questions? Third, what are some of the works that stand out as solid examples of the microhistorical method? What features distinguish them as good models? Finally, what seems to be the future of microhistory? Going forward from 2017, how might this approach serve the goals of historians?

Again, that's what this series is all about. Interested in microhistory? Stay tuned.


[1] Kim Tolley, Heading South to Teach: The World of Susan Nye Hutchison, 1815-1845 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015), 11.

[2] Ibid., 1.

[3] Ibid., 2.

[4] Ibid., 11-12.

[5] On the variety and vagueness of social history, see Harry Ritter, Dictionary of Concepts in History (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986), 408-11.

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