Microhistory

It's the little things that count

Definition

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A magnified view of a photo looking through a single lens viewfinder of a Civil War-era stereo viewer. Photo: Brian Ireley, Smithsonian

Microhistory is a focused study on one event, community, time period, or person.

 

“A search for answers to large questions in small places.”
–Charles Joyner, Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture.

A Slice of Time, A Life Fragment, An Insignificant Item

In “big history,” the broad focus of a moment, a day, an unknown or the unnoticed.  A thesis or a claim for argumentative writing using a microhistory might read like this, “This time, this thing, this person changed the world.” Fill in the blank and begin exploring the micro-way.

The What?

American historians have not been able to settle on a definition for the term, “microhistory.”  To put it in my terms, defining a microhistory is like trying to nail Jello to the wall. Microhistory is not main stream thinking – it is the outlier of historical research and rhetorical argumentation. That’s what I like about it.

The actual word was born in 1959 when American historian, George R. Stewart published, Pickett’s Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Attack on Gettysburg, July 3, 1863. Stewart focuses on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg.  The term and the field remains an outsider with American historians, it is mainly found outside of the U.S. Carlo Ginzburg author of the journal article, “Microhistory, Two or Three Things That I Know about It” is the leading scholar that helped develop this way of looking at history in the 1970s in Italy. Microhistory.org is an academic website from the Center for Microhistorical Research Academy in Reykavik, Iceland. Though it was first introduced to our lexicon by an American author, American historians have not embraced it.

The Why?

The value of writing a microhistory in the classroom is that it moves students to a deeper level of thinking. It takes the student beyond the surface level arguments they hear on cable news 24/7 to an objective analysis and evaluation of an issue. With critical thinking build into microhistory argumentation, students construct their own claims and learn to support it.

Microhistory scholar, Thomas Cohen York University, Toronto wrote about teaching microhistory on He concluded that his students engaged on a deep level, “And they were excited to be “doing history” rather than just consuming it. One advantage of microhistory is that the students become writers before their time.” Because primary sources are key in microhistory, composition students become immersed in the research as to envelop them. They become part of the story.

In the textbook, The Purposeful Argument by Phillips and Bostian say, “An argument based on a microhistory lets you step in the shoes of a historian as you work with primary sources in this kind of argument, you are making sense of the past in a new way, one that can let an audience view a particular even, for example, from different perspectives” (Phillips 206).

 

Works Cited

Cohen, Thomas. “The Larger Uses of Microhistory.” Microhistory Network. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 May 2016.

Ginzburg, Carlo, John Tedeschi, and Anne C. Tedeschi. Microhistory: Two or Three Things That I Know About It. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1993. Print.

Joyner, Charles W. “Introduction.” Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1999. Print.

Lepore, Jill. “Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography.” The Journal of American History 88.1 (2001): 129. Print.

Levi, Giovanni. “On Microhistory. New Perspectives in Historical Writing / Edited by Peter Burke. N.p., 1992). Print.

“Microhistory.” Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc, n.d. Web. 30 May 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Microhistory>.

Phillips, Harry L, and Patricia Bostian. The Purposeful Argument: A Practical Guide. 2nd ed. Boston: Wadsworth, 2015. Print.

“What is Microhistory?” University of Victoria – Web.UVic.ca. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 May 2016. <http://web.uvic.ca/vv/student/vicbrewery/content/microhistory.htm>.

Zoltán, Boldizsár Simon. “Method and Perspective.” Journal of Microhistory. N.p., 2009. Web. 30 May 2016. <http://web.archive.org/web/20110928141954/http://www.microhistory.org/pivot/entry.php?id=48>.

Argument

Stake Your Claim

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In the movie, “Far and Away,” Tom Cruise claimed his land by “staking his claim.” This is what you do in an argumentative thesis – stake (or state) your claim.

Bring your subject out of the dark corners of history. Your topic may have been overlooked in the “big history” books. You will need to use at least one primary source for a close study of your topic. You will feel like you have been there – lived the history. Stake your claim on your piece of history.

You may discover a unique perspective, a new view, or remarkable idea. Write a microhistory. Here’s how:

 

 

How does microhistory compare with other kinds of arguments?

How do you write a microhistory?

Click on the image to link to Prezi.com

Desktop_Microhistory

Click to learn more about writing a microhistory.