What Is Microhistory?





Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson is chair of the Center for Microhistorical Reasarch at the Reykjavik Academy in Iceland.

One of the most interesting and innovative approach to history, mostly cultural and social history, is microhistory, which just recently has been introduced in a new website called microhistory.org in Iceland.

Microhistory came about, according to the German-US historian Georg G. Iggers in his excellent summary of the development of modern historical practice, Historiography in the Twentieth Century, not because the microhistorians considered that the traditional methodology of the social sciences “is not possible or desirable but that social scientists have made generalizations that do not hold up when tested against the concrete reality of the small-scale life they claim to explain.”1 In the light of this perception, monographs and journals began to appear focusing specifically on microhistorical research, and these became a forum for criticism of the kind of social history produced under the influence of the social sciences. Perhaps foremost of the contributors to the debate was the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, who delivered incisive criticisms of the prevailing methods in numerous articles in the Italian journal, Quaderni Storici, the German journal, Historische Anthropologie, in English in Critical Inquiry, and elsewhere.2

Ginzburg and many of his colleagues attacked large-scale quantitative studies on the grounds that they distorted reality on the individual level. The microhistorians placed their emphasis on small units and how people conducted their lives within them. By reducing the scale of observation, microhistorians argued that they are more likely to reveal the complicated function of individual relationships within each and every social setting and they stressed its difference from larger norms. Micohistorians tend to focus on outliers rather than looking for the average individual as found by the application of quantitative research methods. Instead, they scrutinize those individuals who did not follow the paths of their average fellow countryman, thus making them their focal point. In microhistory the term “normal exception” is used to penetrate the importance of this perspective, meaning that each and every one of us do not show our full hand of cards. Seeing what is usually kept hidden from the outside world, we realize that our focus has only been on the “normal exception”; those who in one segment of society are considered obscure, strange, and even dangerous. They might be, in other circles, at the center of attention and fully accepted in their daily affairs.

Nearly all cases which microhistorians deal with have one thing in common; they all caught the attention of the authorities, thus establishing their archival existence. They illustrate the function of the formal institutions in power and how they handle people’s affairs. In other words, each has much wider application, going well beyond the specific case under examination by the microhistorian. The Italian microhistorian Giovanni Levi put it this way in an article on the methods of microhistory: “[M]icrohistorians have concentrated on the contradictions of normative systems and therefore on the fragmentation, contradictions and plurality of viewpoints which make all systems fluid and open.”3 To be able to illustrate this point, microhistorians have turned to the narrative as an analytical tool or a research method where they get the opportunity to present their findings, show the process by which the conclusions are reached, and demonstrate the holes in our understanding and the subjective nature of the discourse.4

I belief that the methods of microhistory are extremely well suited for the study of American history, especially issues related to minorities, ethnicity, race, and gender. The interesting thing is that it has not been applied to American history in a noticeable fashion; microhistory is, indeed, a European phenomena. I do want to encourage American historians to think about the methods of microhistory and contribute to its development as it is introduced on the new webside: www.microhistory.org run by the Center for Microhistoical Research at the Reykjavik Academy in Iceland. Among the features introduced on the webside is a new journal, Journal of Microhistory, an informal online publication which hopefully will work as a forum for ideas and debates about its methods. Also, an extended bibliography on microhistorical research is to be found on the webside which will help future microhistorians, especially those who want to apply it to new fields in American history.

1 Georg G. Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century: from Scientific Objectivity to the Postmodern Challenge (Hanover, NH, 1997), p. 108. See also: Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson, “The Singularization of History: Social History and Microhistory within the Postmodern State of Knowledge.” Journal of Social History, 36 (Spring 2003), pp. 701-735.

2 Ginzburg’s ideas are put forward in a large number of books and articles, notably “Just One Witness,” Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution” (Cambridge, Mass., 1992); The Cheese and the Worms: the Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, trans. John and Anne Tedeschi (Baltimore, 1980); “Proofs and Possibilities: in the Margins of Natalie Zemon Davis’s ‘The Return of Martin Guerre’,” Yearbook of Comparative and General Literature, 37 (1988), pp. 114–127; “Microhistory: Two or Three Things that I Know about it,“ Critical Inquiry, 20 (Autumn 1993), pp. 10–35; “Checking the Evidence: the Judge and the Historian,” Critical Inquiry, 18 (Autumn 1991), pp. 79–92; Carlo Ginzburg and Carlo Poni, “The Name and the Game: Unequal Exchange and the Historical Marketplace,” in Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero, eds., Microhistory and the Lost People of Europe, trans. Eren Branch (Baltimore, 1991), pp. 1–10; Carlo Ginzburg, “The Philosopher and the Witches: an Experiment in Cultural History,” Acta-Ethnographica-Academiae-Scientarum-Hungaricae, 37 (1991–92), pp. 283–292; Clues, Myths, and the Historical Method, trans. John and Anne C. Tedeschi (Baltimore, 1989). This last contains several important essays, of which perhaps the best known is “Clues: Roots of a Evidential Paradigm,” pp. 96–125.

3 Giovanni Levi, “On Microhistory,” in Peter Burke, ed., New Perspectives on Historical Writing (University Park, Pa.., 1991), p. 107.

4 For good discussions of the importance of storytelling in connection with the methods of microhistory see Guido Ruggiero, Binding Passions: Tales of Magic, Marriage, and Power at the End of the Renaissance (New York, 1993), pp. 18-20.


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Bill Jackson - 11/7/2006

I completely agree with the concept of microhistory: knowing the average thoughts and actions of a society is helpful if one has a brief time to try to understand a historical period, but if one wants to truly understand the history of a time or society, a microhistorical approach offers the greatest opportunity for in-depth knowledge.

I know of another website that focuses on gathering microhistorical information in North America: www.storyofmyhome.com. Homeowners share their knowledge of their own experiences living in their home and neighborhood. The goal is to have a community of people grow their own historical knowledgebase and fill in the blanks for a more complete picture, but one that includes the nuances of each individual person.