The MicroWorlds Lab is inspired by a genre of history writing called “microhistory.” First developed by Italian historians in the 1970s as an experiment, microhistory swiftly became one of the most innovative ways of researching and writing history.
Like all good histories, a microhistory begins with a research question or a set of questions. It’s the second step that distinguishes microanalysis: the reduction of the scale of analysis, sometimes drastically. The object of a great microstudy might be a soldier’s return to his village, a bloody murder on the steps of a theater, a midwife’s diary, a dying woman’s conversations, the secret life of a globe-trotting religious convert, the diary of a Confucian doctor, an artist’s riveting musical performance, or the sightings of a ghost on Halloween.
The Methods of Microhistory
In addition to zooming in on an individual, a community or a unique event, a historian might use other microhistorical practices to illuminate the past. She might, for instance, playfully experiment with narration not just to “tell a story” but also as a method of shedding bright light on hidden aspects of a historical person or group of people, as Karen McCarthy Brown does in Mama Lola, or Alessandro Portelli in The Order Has Been Carried Out.
Some commonly used methods and interpretive microhistorical practices include:
- Privileging “ego documents” (first-hand accounts) to explore historical actors’ experiences.
- Tracking clues through multiple sources to discover hidden connections, like a sleuth following every lead to its smallest detail to see where those details unexpectedly collide.
- Reconstructing webs of social networks.
- Scaling an analysis down or up to highlight specific historical contexts and perspectives.
It’s no accident, then, that microhistory draws freely on the methods of cultural anthropology, ethnography, and literary and philological studies, among other disciplines.
What makes Microhistory so special?
Microhistory reinfuses the past with its own vibrant energy because finely crafted microhistories capture the drama of everyday life. They let readers understand people as agents of change for the worlds they live in, often in the face of overwhelming difficulties. The return of a soldier to his village becomes a riveting tale about identity and imposterhood in Natalie Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre. An exchange of gifts among women tumbles a land into panic, revealing the frightening and hidden dynamics of witchcraft driven into the life of one woman at the center of the storm, as told in Thomas Robisheaux’s The Last Witch of Langenburg. Rumors of a slave uprising that spread through a city allow Jill Lepore in New York Burning to reveal the dynamics of race at the street level in New York of the 1740s. The way women create whole worlds in a society is sometimes best explored through microhistory, like Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale or Jon Sensbach’s account of a slave woman missionary who helped inspire the rise of black Christianity in the Atlantic world, in Rebecca’s Revival.
Microhistories can surprise and even shock us. They can bring to light the experiences of everyday people in big, well-known historical events, sometimes in ways that challenge the common wisdom. For instance, the legacy of the German Occupation of Rome in World War II looks entirely new when told through the stories of everyday Romans collected, re-told and interpreted by Alessandro Portelli in The Order Has Been Carried Out. James Goodman’s Stories of Scottsboro shows in acute brushstrokes how everyday racial oppression in the Jim Crow South was even more violent and harrowing than many histories reveal.
Never a fixed approach to history, and popular among academic historians in almost all fields of history, microhistory is known for vivid and engaging works that catch the eye of students and the reading public. Since every historian works at small scales at some point — whether relating an intriguing story or developing an illustrative example — microhistory’s methods are widely applied in all kinds of history writing. The edgy quality of some microstudies can also trigger controversy, since they call attention to the fundamental stakes in history as a discipline.
Today microhistories often serve as correctives to grand historical narratives, big theories, and Big Data studies. Well crafted microhistories discover microworlds of experience barely glimpsed at larger scales of historical study, illuminating the dynamics of human history in rich colors and textures.
What Microanalytical methods can you learn in the lab?
Here in the lab you can learn and practice how to:
- Reduce the scale of analysis and use different scales of analysis. Well-designed microanalysis begins with finding just the right focus.
- Creatively use narrative to craft a story or construct an analysis.
- Identify and interpret “ego documents” – objects or parts of documents that reveal historical figures’ own perspectives on their experiences.
- Design a project around the “exceptional normal,” an event that seems unusual, striking or sensational, but which can become a window onto important everyday patterns, values or ideas.
- Identify and track clues in documents to discover hidden connections. This method involves learning the unique features of different genres of sources, the ways they were created, the language and concepts that shape them, and in the process heightening your sensitivity to be able to identify something striking, unusual or important that you might have otherwise missed.
- Deploy historical contexts for meaning and interpretation of evidence or sources. Every source points to multiple historical contexts. Which ones should you be alert to?
- Do social network analysis. Most people live life in a web of relationships: family, friends, neighbors, and others. Learn to track them, identify the significant ones for your study, and interpret them to reveal hidden or subtle social dynamics.
- Digitally visualize historical networks to reveal connections that might otherwise go unnoticed.
- Treat an historical individual. Traditionally biography is one way to understand the individual in her or his historical world. Microhistory allows other ways to foreground one small moment or aspect of an individual’s life. Which is right for your study?
- Discern the difference between a case study and microhistory. Frequently confused with the case study, microhistorical methods set up an investigation around singular, unique objects, not patterns or “cases.” What can the singular and the unique teach us?
- Use trial records and other tricky sources. Microhistories have pioneered new ways of using records that have in the past been dismissed as too biased.
Duke community members can learn more about microhistory on the MicroWorlds Lab’s Sakai site, in Resources.