The Microhistorical Unknown

In some forthcoming work, I’ve argued that historians tend to overinterpret or misread silences in archival records, seeing instrumental or intentional erasures of knowledge instead of the incidental accidents or the peculiar character of modern archival culture. I suggest that instead of always seeing silence or absence of information as a crisis to which historians must respond, we should just accept with grace the things we can know and the things we can’t know.

That being said, there’s nothing wrong with being curious about events, places and people that we know must have existed but that we can never know as they should be known. It’s that last point that’s really important. One thing that frustrates me at times about “big history”, world history or large-scale historical sociology is the extent to which historians writing in those traditions tend to assume that it’s turtles all the way down, that the insights of big history extend symmetrically to the smallest scales of human life, that microhistory contains no surprises or contradictions for the macrohistorian.

I’m by no means the only person to argue that a better analogy for the relationship between very small or individual experience and macrohistorical change is the relationship between quantum physics and classical physics. The lives of individuals or single communities in a small span of days or months happens within the same temporal and physical world as the life of the human species over a million years. A single event happens within the same reality as vast patterns of events and actions across centuries. But there is a profound break between the two levels or registers of historical experience, and it’s not just about scale. The microhistorical scale is where we find and interpret the meaning in other human lives, where the peculiarity and idiosyncracy of other people’s experience makes it possible to feel and imagine circumstances and decisions beyond our own individual lives. Microhistory can be causally important, in the “for want of a nail” way, but this isn’t its primary value to us. Macrohistory explains the conditions and circumstances of human societies, but microhistory offers us an endless exploration of the mystery of human circumstance.

So sometimes I find myself thinking about the inevitable, imaginable but unknowable microhistories that live in the in-between spaces of macrohistory. There are so many things that we know have to have happened that must have vividly individual stories buried somewhere in them. Think of all the individuals scattered around the world in the early modern era. Jonathan Spence’s The Question of Hu and Randy Sparks’ The Two Princes of Calabar are two great examples of these kinds of stories, but there are so many more that I’d love to know equally well. All those people lost or deliberately debarked, learning new languages and ways of live while living alone in a completely foreign society. Little forts and outposts built at the orders of mercurial or dictatorial officials and ship captains, abandoned or destroyed almost immediately after. Accidental battles and serendipitious feasts out of sight and unremarked upon. Conversations about how to grow yams and corn, sudden impulses to take a new plant on board a ship and bring it somewhere else.

A really skilled narrative historian gets a hold of a vivid, individualized story that rests on deep evidentiary foundations, on documents of many kinds and photographs and interviews, and you see just how important the details and idiosyncracies of human life can be, how much feeling and intensity we’d miss if all we had was the big story, told in the biggest terms possible. The skill of that kind of microhistory isn’t just in explaining everything: the meaning we draw from history on the smallest scales is partly that even when we know almost everything that can be known, there is so much that we don’t know, that the ends of microhistory are wisdom rather than a comprehensive theory of causation across time and space. Somehow I think that should temper the confidence of macrohistory even when we can’t speak to all the stories that we don’t and won’t ever know anything about.

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5 Responses to The Microhistorical Unknown

  1. jfruh says:

    This is only vaguely related, but on the note of historical gaps and unknowns, have you seen any of the coverage today of the discovery of the Anglo-Saxon gold hoard in northern England? One of the things that struck me was a statement from one of the historians/archaeologists working on it, saying, more or less, “This is going to change the way we see early medieval Britain.” (Frustratingly, I can’t find the quote now.) Which made me think: really? I mean, I know the Dark Ages are notoriously ill documented (thus “Dark”) but it struck me that they’re just assuming that this will disrupt the existing narratives — as if they’re sort of acknowledging how sketchy and interpolated those narratives are. Who knows, maybe the artifacts will just reinforce all the conclusions you’ve already drawn. Dare to dream!

  2. john theibault says:

    I guess I’ll have to see your forthcoming work to know where this post is going. I have lots of thoughts on macro vs micro perspectives and on silences and their their role in historical explanation which may connect with what you are interested in, but I found your presentation a little unsettling. I fear I see some straw historians.

    First off, what is the relationship between your idea that historians “see[ing] instrumental or intentional erasures of knowledge instead of incidental accidents” and your suggestion that “instead of always seeing silence or absence of information as a crisis to which historians must respond, we should just accept with grace the things we … can’t know”? Do you really think that seeing erasures of knowledge is the logical outcome of feeling compelled to respond to silence as a crisis? Even disregarding the “always” as hyperbole, I do not think that historians “tend” to over-interpret silences — and to the extent that historians do interpret silences, I think it is because they identify a challenge to their reasoning skills rather than a “crisis” that must be mitigated. Sometimes a silence is just a silence, but other times it actually means something. I think most people working to analyze silences in the past try to assign them to one of three categories: “things that went without saying,” “things that should not be said,” and “things that did not happen.” If there is good reason to think that the last case does not apply, then it must be one of the other two. But the range of things that could fit in the category “things that went without saying” is very extensive in societies where the cost of saying something that lasts is so high. And I think most historians recognize this and content themselves with noting the silence only if it is relevant to some other point.

    I suppose this is a bigger issue in African historiography, where the ratio of silence to documentation is probably higher than in Western history and so one must become more adept in working with silences. And it is indeed a mistake to assert that a silence is caused by erasure when it was actually caused by indifference or accident. Is that what you have in mind? If so, it’s a pretty serious claim to call it a “tendency” rather than to point to specific historians who you think have fallen into that error.

    Hans Medick coined the terms “exceptionally normal” and “normal exception” cases to explain how microhistory could break the silences. In the “exceptionally normal” case, tacit knowledge is made explicit through an unusually rich set of sources; in the “normal exception” case, the boundaries of acceptable discourse are defined by someone’s transgressing them. Both cases help triangulate to those circumstances when silence means something did not happen, rather than was not recorded. (Insert cliches about dogs not barking in the night and trees falling in forests when no one is around here.)

    And while I agree that the classic works of micro-history often revolve around remarkable stories, the way you have presented the distinction here makes it seem as if micro-history is the realm of narrative while macrohistory is the realm of social science. That’s not right on either end. Some exceptional macrohistory is primarily a sweeping narrative, while some exceptional micro-histories are social science investigations that could never be carried out on a global or even national scale.

    I have my own complaints about historical social science (and to a lesser extent world history), but don’t agree that they tend to rest on a “turtles all the way down” method in relation to micro-history. I don’t know who you have in mind as representative of that position, but I don’t think it would hold even for Fernand Braudel, despite his dismissal of the history of events as “epiphenomena.” I think historical social scientists do often start with a pre-determined set of issues that are important in world history (mostly inherited from the nineteenth century) and slight those cases that don’t address those issues. So when a historian looks at a social science model from a perspective outside the classic cases, the explanations sometimes just seem unhelpful. Perhaps you meant something like that with your formulation “the insights of big history extend symmetrically to the smallest scales of human life, that microhistory contains no surprises or contradictions for the macrohistorian.”

    In any case, it’s certainly fair to argue that “there is a profound break in the two levels or registers of historical experience, and it’s not just about scale.” I just think that that realization is the norm, not the exception, for historians. You mention the example of physics as an analogy, but the problem of dueling registers is wider than that. The lack of a clear fit and connecting causal mechanism between macro and micro perspectives bedevils almost every discipline I can think of that has macro and micro levels of analysis. Think of the current crisis in economics. I guess biology comes closest to having a mechanism that connects micro and macro scale issues. It’s probably too much to ask for history to break this barrier down first, since the stuff of history is particularly messy and historians tend to be an untheorizing lot.

    Sorry to ramble on. Despite my criticisms, I mostly think you are right about the value and limitations of microhistory. I just want to frame your perspective a little differently.

  3. G. Weaire says:

    Some of the coverage attaches “since Sutton Hoo” to those statements – an important qualifier. Frankly, I wouldn’t trust a reporter not to have left it out of the versions that don’t have it.

  4. This is precisely why I assign contemporary novels, autobiographies, ethnographies and microhistories — Ray Huang and Philip Kuhn for China, Yamakawa and Cook&Cook for Japan, etc. There’s a difference between the outlines and the texture, and I want students to remember the texture.

  5. Timothy Burke says:


    Sorry to reply so slowly, but thanks very much for that comment. It’s very lovely and useful.

    I do think there are disciplines which at least claim that the micro and macro are continuous, economics being one of them. It’s mostly non-economists who have maintained (for some time) that the claims of economists about the commensurability of methodological individualism and the systematic behavior of economies is more or less whacky. Maybe the discipline is finally ready to roll up its sleeves and think anew about that idea.

    My sense of microhistory is not that it is the natural domain of narrative. Macrohistorians and “big history” practicioners tell some great, compelling, powerful stories. It’s that microhistory is the domain of hermeneutics and phenomenology: it’s where we think about meaning and experience and feeling, about what it’s like to be human, as opposed to the domain of causation. At least for me, those are ways of thinking which has some kind of important, not-necessarily-antagonistic relationship but it’s not a neatly determined or hierarchical relationship where one precedes and leads to the other.

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