Friday, June 23, 2017

Microhistory: What It Is, and What It's Good For (3)

In this third post, I take up some of the criticisms of the subdiscipline known as microhistory. What sorts of challenges have microhistorians had to face?

First, according to some detractors, microhistorical investigations run into problems that result from their dependence on cultural anthropology. Along this line, Karl Appuhn explains that at least some of the Italian microhistorians were interested in the possibility of deciphering “the historical variations in people’s lived experience of the world” by employing the methods of cultural anthropology, particularly the work of Clifford Geertz.[1]

Obviously, unlike anthropologists, historians cannot directly observe the people they want to study. However, they might accumulate “tiny, seemingly trivial bits of evidence” that would “eventually, the microhistorians hoped, enable them to assemble the data into coherent models of specific small-scale social interactions.”[2] From these, microhistorians could then, like Geertz and other cultural anthropologists, “draw much broader conclusions.”[3] This procedural model has generated one objection in particular: anthropologists exercise a good bit of latitude in their interpretations. And, when applied to history, this threatens to degenerate into relativism, to cast doubt on the conclusions of historians, to erode the authority of the discipline.[4]

Reaction to Roger Darnton’s popular book of 1984, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History, provides a specific example of this angle of criticism.[5] Not long after Darnton’s work was published, critical discussion, especially about his Chapter 2, “Workers Revolt: The Great Cat Massacre of the Rue Saint-Séverin,” appeared in the pages of the Journal of Modern History. Both Roger Chartier and Dominick LaCapra argued that Darnton’s borrowings from anthropology led him to use texts in ways that, to those practiced at close readings, seemed more than a bit too easy. As LaCapra expressed it,
Reading for Darnton is a rather cozy hermeneutic process in which meaning is fully recoverable even when it is asserted to be polysemous or multivalent. The focus on message and “worldview” facilitates this unproblematic hermeneutics of reading, for there is little attention to be paid to the composition, work, and play of texts. . . One difficulty in Darnton’s precipitate turn to anthropology is the implicit assumption that emulating the procedures of the latter discipline (as Darnton via Geertz understands them) may provide a “quick fix” for the difficulties encountered in historiography. The result would be that the position of the historian in his or her exchange with the past need not be interrogated.[6]
In this way, both Chartier and LaCapra insisted that primary texts are more complicated than Darnton seemed to recognize or appreciate.[7]

A second, more general criticism of microhistory is that at least some practitioners indulge in mere anecdotalism or antiquarianism. To put it bluntly, not every odd ball or outlier from the past represents a significant group of people or some aspect of history that has since become lost.

Regarding this category of objection, in 2006 Naomi R. Lamoreaux published an article in which she offers a few significant pointers that microhistorians should take to heart. An economist and historian at UCLA, Lamoreaux begins by noting that those who advocate for microhistorical approaches are right to complain about the tendencies of macrohistory to flatten out the particularities of the past. She worries, on the other hand, that some examples of microhistory veer “too far in the opposite direction toward antiquarianism.” The purpose of her comment, she writes, “is to suggest how approaching the study of ordinary men and women from the perspective of . . . ‘historical economics’ carries the potential to avoid both of these pitfalls.”[8]

Lamoreaux observes that some historians seem to value the work of merely “complicating” some aspect of history. By contrast, she notes, economists “do not see why making an analysis more complicated should necessarily be considered a good thing.” She insists that microhistorians
must also be able to demonstrate how putting the additional evidence back in leads to a very different understanding—an alternative model or narrative. In other words, “complicating” an analysis in order to underscore its limitations should be only the first step. It is important also to “resimplify”—to fit the evidence into a new interpretive framework.[9]
But how might that be done? How can historians “approach the task of resimplifying—that is, of showing that a complication leads to a new narrative or model?”[10]

At this juncture, Lamoreaux introduces a bit of jargon from the world of economics: exogenous and endogenous factors. These terms point to the fact that “[t]here is always an inside and outside to a story: there is always something external to the dynamics of the story that sets its events in motion.” Among those who speak this language, one common name for exogenous events is shocks.[11] Lamoreaux notes that along with other economists, she is mystified that any historian who shows how an individual in the past had agency—made what have to have been real choices and decisions—is thought to be making a contribution to what we know. How is that necessarily more than merely stating what should be obvious? Or, as an economist might ask the question, how are these studies anything more than investigations of mostly or entirely endogenous factors?[12] This is the very sort of observation that generates the criticism that microhistorians might be doing nothing more than relating anecdotes or indulging in antiquarianism. Lamoreaux insists that in order for microhistory to be something other than that, microhistorians must present a conversation between exogenous and endogenous factors, a dialectic that might generate an “additional twist,” one that would complicate “a conventional interpretation that can generate an important new analytic narrative.”[13]

What seems obvious enough is that neither of the criticisms noted here necessarily strikes at the heart of what microhistorians attempt to do. These are indictments not of the method itself, but of particular mistakes or misapplications. To the extent that they might clarify and correct, they should thus be treated as guidelines and helpful reminders.


[1] Karl Appuhn, “Microhistory,” in Encyclopedia of European Social History from 1350-2000, ed. Peter Stearns (Detroit: Gale Group, 2001), 1:105.

[2] Ibid., 106.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 107-08.

[5] Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, 1984). Significantly, in his “Acknowledgments,” Darnton states that his book “grew out of a course” on history and anthropology that he taught at Princeton with Clifford Geertz, who, writes Darnton, “taught me most of what I know about anthropology” (xiii).

[6] Dominick LaCapra, “Chartier, Darnton, and the Great Symbol Massacre,” Journal of Modern History 60, no. 1 (March 1988): 104-06.

[7] Before LaCapra waded into the conversation, it was begun by Roger Chartier, “Text, Symbol, and Frenchness,” Journal of Modern History 57, no. 4 (December 1985): 682-95. Robert Darnton responded to Chartier in “The Symbolic Element in History," Journal of Modern History 58, no. 1 (March 1986): 218-34.

[8] Naomi R. Lamoreaux, “Rethinking Microhistory: A Comment,” Journal of the Early Republic 26, no. 4 (Winter 2006): 555.

[9] Ibid., 556.

[10] Ibid., 557.

[11] Ibid., 558-59.

[12] Ibid., 559.

[13] Ibid, 560.

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