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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.

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