• A
  • A
  • A
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
Regular version of the site

Microhistory Days at HSE

This April, Microhistory Days took place at HSE. The event coincided with the visit to the School of History of Prof. Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon (Reykjavík Academy in Iceland) and Dr. István Szijártó (Loránd Eötvös University, Budapest), renowned experts in microhistory, founders of the Microhistory Network, and authors of What is Microhistory? Theory and Practice, a comprehensive analytical monograph.

The event included a roundtable discussion ‘Microhistory: its advantages and limitations’, where the guests made their presentations. In addition to that, the visitors read two lectures on microhistory for HSE students and everyone interested. Finally, the session H-03, Microhistory, took place as part of the XVII April International Academic Conference. The session was chaired by Prof. Alexander Kamenskii. Dr. István Szijártó spoke on ’Microhistory in the Future’, Prof. Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon on ‘Far-reaching Microhistory’, and Prof. Mikhail Boytsov on ‘Is Russian microhistory quite dead or still alive?’

Origins of microhistory

Microhistory was originally founded by Italian Marxist researchers. In 1976, Carlo Ginzburg published his renowned work ‘The Cheese and the Worms: the Cosmos of a Sixteenth-century Miller’, and in 1977, Edoardo Grendi suggested a programme of research based on microanalysis, which was supported by Ginzburg. According to Szijártó, one of the main features of microhistory is the combination of the cultural and the social histories. Microstoria in Italy was from the very beginning split into social (E. Grendi, G. Levi) and cultural. With the area gaining popularity, microhistory was becoming more varied, and that’s why Prof. Szijártó emphasized that there is no one concept and understanding of microhistory.

Advantages of microhistory

István Szijártó defines microhistory by means of three parameters. First, it studies small objects (such as one event, one village community etc), and studies them in detail (it uses a microscopic rather than telescopic view). Second, studying small objects, nevertheless, can explain big historical issues (unlike case studies, where the main thing is to interpret the specific situation rather than make a generalizing conclusion). And the third parameter is the interest in a person and studying individuals as conscious actors.

The microhistorical approach has several advantages. First of all, individuals and humans as an object of research are always interesting for a wider audience, since they involve personal experience. Another advantage of microhistory is the opportunity to look at the situation in various contexts

There is also no shared opinion about the extent to which microhistory is a relevant and productive area today. According to Prof. Szijártó, the microhistorical approach has several advantages. First of all, individuals and humans as an object of research are always interesting for a wider audience, since they involve personal experience. Another advantage of microhistory is the opportunity to look at the situation in various contexts. Finally, Prof. Szijártó believes (and here he agrees with C. Ginzburg) that the microhistory approach is a well-developed study of one case, which should lead to better  generalization. Although the researcher noticed that microhistory is only one of many possible ways, and that he doesn’t consider himself as microhistorian at the moment, he believes that microhistory is the best way to ’write a good story’.

Analysis of each specific case problematizes the prevailing concepts in historiography, checks them and reveals both their explanatory potential, and costs and limitations. On this basis, Dr. István Szijártó formulated a two-stage research strategy for historians. The first stage is microhistorical. ‘For example, take 25 years of national history. Describe some examples that would problematize the prevailing explanatory models’. A microhistorian should stop at this stage. The second stage is correction, radical change or suggesting some new, more adequate explanatory models, taking into account the recently acquired knowledge, on a new, macrohistorical level. In this way, microhistory organically integrates into macrohistory and the general process of historical cognition.

Practice of microhistorical research

Prof. Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon focused his speech on the practice of microhistorical research. The speaker told the audience about his past and future publications dedicated to the life of Icelandic peasants in the 18th – 20th centuries. Particularly, he spoke about working on his 1997 book, Education, Love and Grief. A Micro-Historical Analyses of the 19th and the 20th Century Peasant Society in Iceland, which became a major example of such research practice.

The most general question that Prof. Magnússon focused on was the question of the influence of the Guttenberg Revolution on ‘big narratives’, and particularly, their correlation with Iceland’s mass culture. In order to understand how education and distribution of printed books have influenced the evolution of written traditions in peasantry, it’s not enough to look at this process from above. A lot of personal sources, such as autobiographies, diaries and letters, have been preserved in Iceland, which make it possible to look at history from the ordinary person’s point of view. Working with this material allowed Prof. Magnússon to shift the focus of his study towards personal experiences and look at how emotions and education influence each other.

Three main ingredients of microhistory: focused attention on the source and its subjectivity, the ‘moral exception’ principle, which means that an accused or marginalized behaviour, opinion or phenomenon has its internal logic in an unconsidered context, and finally, decreasing the scale of observation

The speaker also outlined the main differences between his approach and the ‘Italian school’ of microhistory, which is focused on completing the senses that come from historical sources. Such completion is mainly related to the fact that the Italian scholars most often worked with people who didn’t leave any personal materials, so they had to use some processed information, and often processed by people related to the authorities. For 19th-century Iceland such completion is unnecessary, since there is the opportunity to study letters and diaries, known as ‘ego-documents’. For similar reasons, Prof. Magnússon only used hand-written materials. Printed books have to be edited, which decreases their representativeness as a personal source.

Prof. Magnússon outlines the three main ingredients of microhistory: focused attention on the source and its subjectivity, the ‘moral exception’ principle, which means that an accused or marginalized behaviour, opinion or phenomenon has its internal logic in an unconsidered context, and finally, decreasing the scale of observation. Despite this, Prof. Magnússon was sceptical about some microhistorians’ inclination to tie any material to larger explanatory models no matter what, and to consider them in relation to ‘great historical issues’.

Prof. Magnússon encourages microhistorians to focus on small objects, to study the textual environment, to focus on the sources, and to follow a living research model, when the plans on source collection, the tasks, the topics and the problems of the research are not formulated beforehand, but depend on immersion in the sources and on the perspectives suggested by the latter.

Microhistory in Russia

Prof. Boytsov said in his presentation that Russian microhistory, as well as historical anthropology, was initially connected to a reaction against official Marxism, which expectedly lost its authority as the Soviet Union collapsed. But the opposition character of these areas did not mean they used similar methodology. For example, anthropology was accused of excessive determination; individual behaviour was inevitably determined by their mentality, which could remind an attentive researcher about the historical process theories which prevailed short before that. The microhistorical approach, which started evolving in the mid-1990s, on the contrary, focused on cases outside of the norm. According to Yury Bessmertny, it was supposed to demonstrate ‘how an individual was able to express their identity under limitations’. At the same time, Prof. Boytsov emphasized that the Russian microhistory has never been a solid area united by one journal or a team of researchers. For example, the editors of the Kazus almanac, which popularized microhistory, have always spoken about its closeness to microhistory, but were more attracted to postmodernism than was acceptable, for example, from Carlo Ginzburg’s point of view. Nevertheless, while before the mid-2000s there still were discussions on microhistory and some researchers, albeit it few, associated with this area and published their papers, later the former and the latter both disappeared. The authors of papers that could have been defined as ‘microhistorical’ preferred not to use the term. Obviously, the speaker concluded, Russian historians failed to believe in the universalism of the microhistorical method, and the academic community’s unwillingness to discuss the problems of microhistory is related to lack of integration inside the community, which failed to find a uniting factor after the ‘death of big narratives’. This means that microhistory is definitely dead, as well as the historical narration in general. At the same time, Prof. Boytsov emphasized that history provides evidence that something once dead may resuscitate again, and it is within our power to do this.

See also:

‘The Biggest Priority in Education Is World Class Professional Development Programmes’

The report entitled ‘Twelve Solutions for New Education’, prepared by the Higher School of Economics and the Centre for Strategic Development, was presented at the XIX April International Academic Conference. Professors Martin Carnoy and Tomasso Agasisti, international experts on education and conference guests, have shared their views on the issues and initiatives highlighted in the report.

How Are Russian Cities Different from Western Cities?

One of the roundtables held during the XIX April Academic Conference featured a discussion of the report on morphology of Russian cities presented by Robert Buckley, Senior Fellow in the Graduate Program in International Affairs at The New School, US. The report looked at what Russian cities look like in terms of population density, how the patterns Russian cities exhibit compare with those of other cities around the world, and what individual behaviours might have contributed to the appearance of a certain pattern.

Marx’s Capital Was a Work in Progress

The notion that Karl Marx's works have been studied inside and out is fundamentally incorrect. The huge body of his manuscripts has still not been completely processed, and his seminal work, Capital, was only recently published with the final edits of the author. The 19th April Conference at the Higher School of Economics included the section ‘Methodology of Economic Science’ which was devoted to the work of the German philosopher and political scientist. Independent researcher and professor from Berlin, Thomas Kuczynski, gave a presentation at the conference which pointed out numerous aspects of Marx’s continuous rethinking of allegedly fixed truths.

Russia’s Economic and Social Development Depends on How It Responds to Technological Challenges

During a plenary session of the HSE XIX April International Academic Conference, participants discussed the technological future of the Russian economy and how it relates to objectives such as speeding up economic growth and improving the quality of life.

Digital Humanities: A God of Many Faces

These days, no scientific research is carried out without the use of digital media for the production or dissemination of knowledge. The term ‘Digital Humanities’ reflects this process and constitutes a scientific field where humanists not only aim to use a certain software, but also to understand research using quantitative semantics. However, digital infrastructures are not the same globally. In her talk at the HSE April International Academic Conference Dr Gimena del Rio Riande addressed various issues that arise in connection with digital humanities.

We Must Reconsider the Government’s Role in the Economy

Slower GDP growth rates over the last several years were brought about by changes on international markets and the exhaustion of transformational bonuses due to the transition from a planned economy to a market economy, and this slowdown proves the necessity of looking for new solutions for stimulating the economy. The authors of the paper ‘Structural Changes in the Russian Economy and Structural Policy’ conducted a large-scale analysis on structural policy in Russia and around the world, as well as on possible ways for this policy to develop further. The first presentation of the paper took place as part of the plenary session called ‘Structural Policy in Russia: New Conditions and a Possible Agenda,’ which closed out HSE’s XIX April International Academic Conference.

HSE Hosts Russian National Award in Applied Economics

The winner of the 2018 award is Ina Ganguli, Professor at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. The American researcher stood out for her series of articles analysing the productivity of Russian scientists in the 1990s, as well as their decisions concerning emigration and the impact that emigration had on the diffusion of Russian science in the United States.

Improved Investment Environment as a Real Factor in Solving Current Economic Problems

The subject of the risks and challenges related to sanctions on Russia is crucial in defining a number of different areas of economic policy. Participants in the round table focused on improving the business environment as one of the ways of responding to sanctions, exchanged opinions during the 19th April International Academic Conference on Economic and Social Development about how to move into positive economic growth while under this external pressure.

Breakthrough Solutions to Lead the Way in Modernizing Education

On April 11, the educational portion of the XIX April International Academic Conference featured a presentation and discussion of the paper ‘12 Solutions for New Education,’ which was prepared by the Higher School of Economics and the Centre for Strategic Development.

Russia Has the Resources for a Budget Manoeuvre That Helps Education, Healthcare, and Social Welfare

Issues concerning changes pertinent to key social spheres were discussed during the ‘Human Capital and Social Policy’ plenary session of the XIX April International Academic Conference on Economic and Social Development.