Monday, June 26, 2017

Microhistory: What It Is, and What It's Good For (5th and Final)

In this fifth and final post, I want to say a few things about the future of microhistory. If recent discussions of theory and methodology, and just the production of historiography itself are any indication, then it seems that microhistory has a promising future. For example, a recent unigram search of Google Books indicates an exponential growth in the occurrence of microhistory from the 1980s up to the present. Kim Tolley’s new microhistory, cited at the beginning of the first post, is one of many.

Positive signs also turn up in one of my own subfields of study, the Stone-Campbell Restoration Movement. The authors of a recently-published survey textbook, The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History, make the following generalization:
A shift away from macro-history began in the 1970s, especially rejecting history written from the standpoint of dominant institutions or socio-political elites. Instead, the focus was on “micro-histories” and the stories of outsiders and marginalized groups, especially immigrants, racial minorities, and women.[1]
Among the few works of Stone-Campbell history that fit this generalization, at least two stand out: Daisy L. Machado’s Of Borders and Margins: Hispanic Disciples in Texas, 1888-1945, and Edward J. Robinson’s To Save My Race from Abuse: The Life of Samuel Robert Cassius.[2]

To summarize this entire series then, microhistory grew out of the interests of European social historians and was developed in Italy beginning in the 1970s. Its initial concern was to use “microscopic” methods to verify, correct, and supplement macrohistory, whose generalizations might be misguided or incomplete. In this way, microhistory could serve the goal of the Annales school to present “total history.” Since its inception, some examples of microhistory have been criticized for their dependence on the methods of cultural anthropology, or for their indulgence in anecdotalism and antiquarianism. Nevertheless, works described by their authors as microhistories, as well as other works that exhibit some of the characteristics of the microhistorical method, have grown in popularity among historians. At least one advocate of microhistory, namely, American historian Richard D. Brown, does not consider this trend a scholarly fad. Rather, he sees it as important to the foundation of history itself.

Of course, Brown’s overall concern relates to much more than the usefulness of microhistory. For example, in a much more general way French social historian Arlette Farge has responded to the question of the relationship between truth and historiography. She takes a mediating approach, one that argues that while no historian ever produces “the definitive truthful narrative,” no historian worthy of the name can ever disregard truth, or fail to care about what is true.[3]

Here, there is a discernible correspondence between Farge’s position and that of Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis. In his series of lectures titled The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past, Gaddis observes that historians have always known that arriving at historical consciousness means one has learned “that there is no ‘correct’ interpretation of the past” and that “the act of interpreting is itself a vicarious enlargement of experience.”[4] At the same time, Gaddis rejects the extreme conclusion that because “we have no absolute basis for measuring time and space” we therefore “can’t know anything about what happened within them.”[5]

Both Farge and Gaddis would agree, it seems, that historians can and should identify many things that are true, while at the same time recognizing that one’s interpretation of a set of facts is just that: an interpretation.
[1] D. Newell Williams, Douglas A. Foster, and Paul M. Blowers, eds. The Stone-Campbell Movement: A Global History (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2013), 5.

[2] Daisy L. Machado, Of Borders and Margins: Hispanic Disciples in Texas, 1888-1945 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003); Edward J. Robinson, To Save My Race from Abuse: The Life of Samuel Robert Cassius (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2007).

[3] Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives, trans. Thomas Scott-Railton (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 95-96.

[4] John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: How Historians Map the Past (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 10.

[5] Ibid., 34.


Leonard Allen said...

Appreciate the series. Interesting and helpful.

Frank Bellizzi said...

Thanks for your encouragement.