the extending archives question
What is microhistory?
First developed as an experiment in the 1970s, microhistory has become one of the most innovative ways of researching and writing about history today.
a gif of a microbe
Microhistory refutes the conventional idea that historians should aspire towards seeking a single, all-encompassing historical truth, a total history which may in reality obscure and dehumanise individuals and their agency. Instead, they bring to light the experiences of everyday people in big, well-known historical events, sometimes in ways that challenge conventional wisdom. Thus, a researcher adopting microhistorical practices would not only experiment with narration to ‘tell a story’, but also use it to shed light on hidden aspects of history.
“Microhistory reinfuses the past with its own vibrant energy because finely crafted microhistories capture the drama of everyday life.”
A microhistory project begins with a research question or a set of questions, yet the difference is that it tightens its research focus on a specific event, community, or individual to illuminate the past. To get a more intimate understanding of their subject matter, researchers often have to adopt innovative methods and interpretive practices including:
Privileging first-hand accounts to explore historical actors’ experiences.
Tracking clues through multiple sources to discover hidden connections, like a detective following every lead to its smallest detail
Reconstructing webs of social networks
Scaling an analysis down or up to highlight specific historical contexts and perspectives
One of the most compelling cases for microhistory is its powerful ability to connect with readers. The genre’s emphasis on little details creates a stronger illusion of reality, allowing the author to reconstruct lived experiences more vividly. As such, microhistories allow audiences to engage with history on a more personal level, compared to works of a larger scale, which may sometimes feel distant and abstract. They let readers understand people as agents of change for the worlds they live in, often in the face of overwhelming difficulties. Thus, by developing microhistories, we can get a more nuanced and complex understanding of the dynamics of human history.
Some of our favourite microhistory books include:
RAIN: A NATURAL AND CULTURAL HISTORY
BY CYNTHIA BARNETT
“It is the subject of countless poems and paintings; the top of the weather report; the source of the world’s water. Yet this is the first book to tell the story of rain. Cynthia Barnett’s Rain begins four billion years ago with the torrents that filled the oceans, and builds to the storms of climate change. It weaves together science—the true shape of a raindrop, the mysteries of frog and fish rains—with the human story of our ambition to control rain.”
SALT: A WORLD HISTORY
BY MARK KURNSKY
“The only rock we eat, salt has shaped civilization from the very beginning, and its story is a glittering, often surprising part of the history of humankind. A substance so valuable it served as currency, salt has influenced the establishment of trade routes and cities, provoked and financed wars, secured empires, and inspired revolutions. Populated by colorful characters and filled with an unending series of fascinating details, Salt is a supremely entertaining, multi-layered masterpiece.”
THE CODE BOOK: THE SCIENCE OF SECRECY FROM ANCIENT EGYPT TO QUANTUM CRYPTOGRAPHY
BY SIMON SINGH
“Simon Singh offers the first sweeping history of encryption, tracing its evolution and revealing the dramatic effects codes have had on wars, nations, and individual lives. From Mary, Queen of Scots, trapped by her own code, to the Navajo Code Talkers who helped the Allies win World War II, to the incredible (and incredibly simple) logistical breakthrough that made Internet commerce secure, The Code Book tells the story of the most powerful intellectual weapon ever known: secrecy.”
Further Reading: Brewer, J. (2010). Microhistory and the histories of everyday life. Cultural and Social History, 7(1), 87-109.
Ginzburg, C. (2014). Microhistory: Two or three things that I know about it. In Theoretical discussions of biography (pp. 139-166). Brill.
Magnússon, S. G. (2017). Far-reaching microhistory: the use of microhistorical perspective in a globalized world. Rethinking History, 21(3), 312-341.
Szijártó, I. (2002). Four arguments for microhistory. Rethinking History, 6(2), 209-215.
Trivellato, F. (2015). Microstoria/Microhistoire/Microhistory.