Microhistory, margins, methods

A few weeks ago I received a notice for a talk at the University of Toronto: Texts and Contexts for Writing a Microhistory — apparently part of their “Semiotics Circle” lectures. Dr Nicholas Terpstra works “primarily on the intersections of politics, religion, charity, and gender in Italian Renaissance urban society. He is particularly interested in what life was like at the margins of society, and how Renaissance Italians accommodated groups like poor women, abandoned children, and criminals.” He’s got a new book coming out: Lost Girls: Sex and Death in Renaissance Florence (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2010).

From the abstract for his talk:

Microhistories often work with odd sources of uncertain voice, but they become far more complicated when many of the available texts aim to misrepresent and when the context is silence. When I was trying to determine why so many girls were dying in a Renaissance Florentine orphanage, it became necessary to juxtapose sources and read into the silences in order to piece together a plausible narrative. All historical narratives are hypothetical to greater or lesser degrees, but what makes them plausible?

Wow? Really? How does one read into silence? Dude, I want to see your methodology notes. Fascinating. Wikipedia says this:

First developed in the 1970s, microhistory is the study of the past on a very small scale. The most common type of microhistory is the study of a small town or village. Other common studies include looking at individuals of minor importance, or analysing a single painting. Microhistory is an important component of the “new history” that has emerged since the 1960s. It is usually done in close collaboration with the social sciences, such as anthropology and sociology.

I looked up more and found Sigurdur Gylfi Magnusson’s, What Is Microhistory?, from 2006. A few juicy bits:

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..

… 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.” 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.

What will microhistorians researching the 21st century do with blogs and twitter? There is so much interesting in here… The focus on the local. The personal is the political. Questions about how we create histories and how we do research. What did not get documented? How do we get to that? This also matters in terms of modern political communication: What gets defined as an issue? What are the range of potential solutions? And I’ve been thinking some about research methods — their limits, the use of storytelling, etc. — so this post is a little hint of more to come.


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