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For decades now historians have been experimenting ways to define and
approach historical subjects quite unlike those traditionally used in the
discipline. Instead of concentrating almost exclusively on the structural
institutions of society, their form and nature, along with certain key individuals
who were seen as having had the main part in shaping them, historians
started to turn their minds to the kinds of influence that ordinary people
exerted on society through their day-to-day conduct and behavior. When we
speak of ordinary or common people here what we mean is all those who
led their lives at a remove from the power centers of society and played no
direct part in the decisions that affected its form and development. By
structural institutions, what we mean are phenomena such as the family, the
educational and cultural systems, political movements (such as workers
movements), and so on. Historians have traditionally tended to discuss these
structural institutions on the basis of the legislative foundations on which they
rested. They have explored the relationships and duties of individual groups to
these institutions and how they impinged on different areas of society. A
particularly prevalent area of study has been the individuals that controlled
and directed these institutions and shaped their ideologies the people who
exercised the power. In other words, the emphasis has primarily been on
analyzing in great detail views and assumptions about how these institutions
came into being and were built up, and only very rarely on looking into the
meaning they had in the lives of the people themselves.[1]

The prevailing approach has resulted in a preponderant concentration among

historians on only a very limited number of well-known individuals, almost
exclusively men in positions of influence within society. The history of
particular events has generally been viewed in terms of a selected group of
men who took decisions and were seen as having influence over millions
through their thoughts and actions. According to this version of history, the
rest, the ordinary people, simply didnt get a look in. Any number of examples
might be cited from political history, and also in fact from the history of ideas,
in the ways that these areas have most commonly been researched around
the world.

If we turn our attention to Iceland, we of course find the same kinds of

characteristics in the areas of history just mentioned as elsewhere in the world.
But to broaden the picture it is interesting to take instead an example from
industrial and economic history, areas where there are great gains to be had in
breaking free from the constrictions of traditional history since the scholarly
approaches applied hitherto have been so firmly entrenched within its
conceptual framework. In tracing the history of the trawler fisheries in Iceland,
historians have invariably focused on the legislative measures that laid down
the basis for the industry in the country, on specific incidents that marked
significant points in its development, and on its implications for the national
economy. That is, the story is presented from the very narrow perspective of
institutional history. When it comes to discussing the people (the ordinary
people) involved in these events, the chosen model is that of traditional labor
history or at least this is the approach most economic and social historians
have adopted.

Innumerable examples might be cited here, but it is worth looking specifically

at a work by a well-known Icelandic historian on the history of trawling in
Iceland.[2] I choose this particular example because at the time of the books
publication the general consensus was that this was an impressive piece of
research, a work that, though somewhat traditional in its methods, had
succeeded admirably in its aims and had considerable influence in its time. It
is also a particularly clear example of the kind of traditional historical
approach that many historians elsewhere in the world started to cast doubt on
some thirty years ago as regards any claim to telling the whole story. Behind
these doubts lay various pressing questions regarding ordinary people and
their ideas about life. This piece of Icelandic research, however, focused
primarily on the legislative measures affecting the fisheries, on when the
trawlers first made their appearance in Iceland, and on the kinds of values
created in the industry and the part played by the fisheries in moving Iceland
away from a purely rural society to a more urban one. That is, the study
worked its way toward its desired goal along the well-worn paths of
traditional historical research.

To continue with our example of the history of the Icelandic trawler industry,
the kinds of questions the new history would have asked would probably
rather have been along the following lines: What can we say about the men
who stood on deck out in the north Atlantic in the depths of winter pulling up
the cod? Did the history of the trawler fisheries effect them in any way, and
did they contribute anything to the development of the industry? Where did
they come from and what happened to them? What about their families and
their lives during the long periods the men were out at sea? What about the
people who processed the produce of their labor on land? What kind of lives
did these people lead and what effect did this have on the way society
developed? These and questions like them came to exercise the minds of an
ever-growing band of scholars around the world faced with subjects for
research comparable to the one described above. Many historians found it
hard to accept that the people who were actually involved in the making of
history and who spent their lives in the unremitting grind of everyday reality
never got to be named by name and their part put in the scales and weighed.
Social historians started talking about a glaring injustice that needed to be
redressed before history could be said to be living up to its responsibilities.

Arguments of this type were not, however, put forward solely out of a sense of
justice and equity that the ordinary people also had a right to a history of
their own but on purely epistemological grounds. The history of nations and
peoples can never be told, in the view of many social historians, unless full
account is taken the part of the ordinary people in it. Any other version of
history is telling only a small part of the story. Behind this view lies the
argument that the ordinary people have had immeasurable influence on the
shaping of societies through their daily conduct and behavior: it was thus
necessary to investigate the everyday experience of these people, and even to
elevate it to a position of pre-eminence within historical analysis.

Many historians were even prepared to take this epistemological argument

the extra mile and assert that there was no necessity to provide any
justification for subjects of study within history; they were justified simply by
their own existence. Historiography had had a strong tendency to deal only
with those groups and individuals that were viewed as having a right to their
own place in history. As a result of the perceived need to justify the study of
history, many groups in society found themselves sidelined while others were
brought out center-stage with a view to restoring the balance. As will become
clear later in this essay, individuals and groups that have been considered
outside the pale of human society are without any doubt worthwhile
subjects of research: they are every bit as likely to shed light on the history of
greater entities as those that have hitherto received the most attention, if only
because the material itself offers opportunities to think about the past in new
and illuminating ways. For this reason I prefer to overlook any sociopolitical
justification for the practice of history, preferring to look for subjects for
investigation that I believe may throw up revealing perspectives on past times
in the way I am interested in talking about them. So far as I can see, the
ordinary people, or any other group of society, are not possessed of any
unique historical force; it is rather a question of the historian shaping the
material in his own mind and through this process providing himself with a
means of shedding light on the past. One outcome of this view of mine has
been a certain growing disenchantment with social history in recent years, a
feeling that has prompted me to turn toward the crucible of microhistory. It is
there, it seems to me, that the opportunities open up for historians to
immerse themselves in material that may have the power to make them think
about the past in fruitful ways, with their own creative imaginations as the tool
of their trade. It is then up to their readers if so inclined to make a political
evaluation of what they have to say.

Fundamental questions of the kind raised here have been at the center of
intense debate in social history in recent decades. Various broad approaches
have emerged, among the most notable being the Annales school in France,
research done in America aimed at using the methods of the social sciences to
settle various areas of historical dispute, and the work of a certain group of
influential British social historians.[3] It is hardly a matter for wonder that, with
the new subjects that were coming up for discussion, historians with an
interest in these subjects flocked under the banner of social history.
Developments in the 1960s and 1970s divided historians into various different
camps. The biggest and most powerful of these comprised scholars who used
historical demography in their research and introduced sophisticated methods
of statistical analysis which opened up new ways of investigating historical
developments over large areas and extended periods of time. The subject
being studied was in most cases the ordinary people the working class and
its world, seen through the objective eye of positivism.[4] A curious thing
about this approach is that initially it was intended as a move away from
positivism, but it was only in very rare instances that it succeeded in cutting
off its links with it entirely. Its tone of empirical objectivity proved to be a
marked and enduring feature, in part as a consequence of its rejection of the
subjective testimony of individuals as legitimate data for historical research.

Alongside the historical demographers, a second large and influential

movement emerged within social history associated with what may be called
history from below, an approach that later split into various different strands
according to the emphases of historians in different countries. It is this
element of social history that I intend to discuss in this article, and in particular
its part in the development of the new cultural history in the 1980s and

2. History From Below

The Making of the English Working Class by the British historian E. P.

Thompson is one of the landmarks in the development of social
history.[5] Along with other works issued by Thompson over the succeeding
years, it was to have an enormous influence on historical research throughout
the world. It is fair to say that the interest in the individual as a historical entity
that caught hold in Britain in the 1960s can be traced directly to Thompson
and his work: He also grasped the necessity of trying to understand people in
the past, as far as the modern historian is able, in the light of their own
experience and their own reactions to that experience.[6] It was, however,
some time before historians found the confidence, to any appreciable extent,
to elevate the individual to the center of attention; the tendency was much
rather to study ordinary people collectively as a group rather than individuals.

The historian Jim Sharpe has made a special study of the practitioners of
history from below, the form of historiography that developed from the
work of E. P. Thompson and the group of other British historians working
along similar lines. The problem with the experiments inspired by Thompson
and his followers was that they stood on very weak methodological
foundations. History from below was based principally upon narrative sources
and descriptive methods but was hampered by a method of historical analysis
that tended toward indeterminacy and lack of rigor. To take one example, in
the article mentioned Sharpe identified one of the key questions: [...] does
history from below constitute an approach to history or a distinctive type of
history?[7] Sharpe himself refuses to commit himself on this point, citing
arguments in favor of either view. Here I, conversely, would argue
categorically that history from below was first and foremost a
particular approach to the writing of history rather than a distinctive type of
history or method of studying history in the English-speaking academic
world.[8] It was in a sense a subclass within social history in a similar way to
historical demography, only without ever achieving the same influence and
status. These two branches stood side by side, though with demography
hugely more widely used than history from below in countries like the USA,
England and France, thanks largely to its more fully worked out
methodological and ideological processing.

History from below never developed into anything more than a historical
approach because there was virtually no consideration of the common
methodological problems of this kind of historical research it might perhaps
be said that historical demography, with its extremely rigorous
methodological underpinnings, governed the research emphases of other
subdisciplines within social history (such as history from below), causing them
to fail to develop independently. The research carried out under the impetus
of history from below, however, extended to subjects that had previously
received little or no attention: we might, for example, cite crime, popular
culture, popular beliefs, children, women, gender roles, sex, leisure activities,
living conditions, disease, diet, clothing and many others. It was precisely this
innovative choice of subject matter that made the approach so popular
among historians, with scholars competing to quarry out from their sources
material relating to these subjects without giving much thought to the
methodological and ideological basis on which they stood. History from below
was thus characterized by a conspicuous richness of description of the kinds
of subjects mentioned above but without its being grounded within a
sufficiently reliable ideological and methodological framework.

The essential idea underlying research of this kind was that ordinary people,
however low on the social ladder they might be, had had an influence on the
development of society and the progress of history simply by living, breathing
and existing. It was therefore necessary to focus on the ordinary people as
a group and investigate it specifically as such. This tied in well with the
thinking behind the Annales movement and the American social-science
approach to history. The links with these strong research traditions on either
side of the Atlantic lent further weight to the perception that there was no
need for history from below to concern itself particularly with methodology, or
at least this was how it worked out in practice. It found itself a place within a
framework that had been laid down in research in France and the USA and
shaped over a long period, a framework that was based on the quantitative
approach to history.

One offshoot of this new approach to research in academic circles in the

English-speaking countries and France was what has been called the history
of mentalities, sometimes known by its French name mentalit. While
indisputably a part of history from below, this branch of social history has no
precise definition that all scholars have found themselves able to unite
around. In fact, the history of mentalities never managed to create for itself
the kind of unique identity necessary to be able to grow and prosper
methodologically. It thus never became the force that many scholars had
hoped, but it is possible to argue that it constituted a necessary step in the
development of a particular kind of history.

The history of mentalities has clear connections with the old cultural history,
despite differences in both treatment and choice of material. A comment
sometimes heard was that the history of mentalities was the informal history
of ideas of the uneducated masses. The focus was on peoples attitudes
toward and understanding of phenomena such as death, crime and other
matters of a subjective nature as opposed to their material environment. As
this description might suggest, it is no surprise that the history of mentalities
has become associated with many branches of history and found a place
within various diverse subdisciplines (cultural history, history of ideas, social
history, microhistory, Alltagsgeschichte, etc.), and can therefore hardly be
spoken of as a discrete entity. In a sense it is emblematic of history from
below as a whole, resting as it does on similarly shaky methodological
grounds.[9] It is hard, therefore, to echo the American historian Mary
Lindemann in her brief summary of the history of mentalities, in which she
foresees a bright future for the approach: Mentalities continues to offer a way
to probe the collective psyche of historical groups, and to demonstrate the
influence of intangibles that are as important to the functioning and the
integrity of a society as are the politics of lites, the ideas of intellectuals, and
the workings of the economy.[10]

The history of mentalities represented an attempt on the part of the Anglo-

Saxon and French academic worlds to endow history from below with a life of
its own, in a comparable way to the scholarly experiments being conducted in
countries like Italy and Germany discussed later. The fact that, to my mind, this
attempt failed so spectacularly can be put down to the overpowering
influence of historical demography in France and the USA (and to some extent
in Britain too).[11]

History from below, in all its manifestations, had a very powerful political
element. One of the avowed aims of many of its practitioners was, as
previously mentioned, to have an influence on their surroundings and to write
history that was stirring and provocative. Historians who fell under the spell of
this approach to the past looked upon their subject matter as a historical
force, that the people who came under their microscope had in themselves
something important to contribute to events. There was a strong link between
this kind of historiography and the civil rights movement in the USA as well as
womens liberation movements around the world. In an article published in
1989 and focussing on social history in Germany, the British historian Geoff
Eley, then working in the USA, drew attention to the diversity and many-
sidedness of sociohistorical studies in the preceding years: Within the Anglo-
American field of activity, history from below was never a single movement
but was always complex and heterogeneous.[12]

Though history from below never became a particularly powerful force in

France, England and the USA, it underwent a more radical development in
countries like Germany and Italy, something that was to go on to have
considerable influence throughout the world in the second half of the 1980s.
In the remainder of this article I intend to trace in broad detail the main lines
of development of this kind of social history. The bulk of its subject matter
comes from the lives and conditions of ordinary or working-class people.
Alongside this, much of its research has been aimed at articulating the
premises and assumptions under which these people led their lives. I shall
attempt to demonstrate how social history, like history from below, developed
differently in one country from another, as well as identifying the features that
these different manifestations had in common. There are interesting
similarities, and differences, between the three main forms: the history from
below practiced in the English-speaking world, discussed previously; its
German counterpart Alltagsgeschichte; and the microhistory that originated
in Italy but which has since gone on, in the last twenty years or so, to establish
some footing in most countries of the western world.

In a discussion of this kind I will inevitably have to move rapidly over events
and present a somewhat simplified view of what has in fact been a
complicated and often contradictory process. The main purpose of this
discussions is to demonstrate the force and vitality of social and, in fact also of
cultural history, as a tool of academic analysis, provided that historians are
prepared to face up to changes within the intellectual world and strive to
avoid the institutionalization of their discipline to allow their subject to
change and grow. I shall also try to identify the factors that have made some
attempts by historians to use social or cultural history successful and others
fail to come properly to terms with their material. I make no bones about my
contention that, as things stand, social history is faced with a considerable
problem as a result of the way it has developed in recent decades. As
suggested earlier, it is my view that social historians have had only negligible
success in putting into practice the basic premise of their discipline, that of
approaching history from the grass roots, i.e. the ordinary people. This view
will be argued in greater detail in what follows.

It is worth repeating that history from below is a collective term for the type of
social and cultural history that focuses particular attention on the individual as
a historical phenomenon in all writing of history. History from below has been
pursued under this name in France, Britain and the USA, in Germany under the
name of Alltagsgeschichte (or everyday life history), and in Italy as
microhistory. In fact, all these attempts to approach and explain the past
have similarities, even if the methods applied often differ. As a result, the
boundaries between these three concepts are often blurred and I intend to
attempt to present a clear picture of how they have manifested themselves
and the possibilities I believe they have to offer within modern scholarship.

Finally, I intend to assess the opportunities open to social historians, even

those living on the periphery in countries like Iceland, to have an influence on
the ideological evolution of their discipline, especially as set against the
development of social and cultural history elsewhere in the world. The
discussion will consider the ways in which it is possible to apply the
methodological and ideological debate that has gone on over the last ten
years concerning new ways of approaching subjects that were previously a
closed book. It will be shown how such an approach can serve to open up new
ways of looking at societies of former times, societies that we have hitherto
believed we were already thoroughly acquainted with. But before doing this I
need to look back and provide a brief review of how I perceive the
development of social history over the last 30 or more years and the changes
it has undergone in this period. My idea is to use the well-known American
journal, the Journal of Social History (JSH), as a yardstick of these changes and
through this to identify particular ideological flashpoints over the longer term
an application, as it were, of the methods of microhistory to the discussion
of the ideological upheavals within the discipline by viewing its development
through the pages of a single journal. The leading role in this discussion
belongs, indisputably, to the editor of the JSH, the prominent social history
Peter N. Stearns, a man who at regular intervals since the journals inception
has contributed influential synthesis on the current state of social history.
From this I will go on to consider microhistory itself and look at how it fits into
this picture.

3. Social History in the Making

In 1976, at the invitation of the JSH, a number of social historians offered their
comments on the state of their subject as it then was and the experience
gained in its research, under the title Social History Today and Tomorrow?
Among the contributions was a challenging article by Theodore Zeldin,
professor at Oxford in England.[13] The main thrust of Zeldins article was to
sound a warning against the blind application of received ideas and to
articulate the view that the study of social systems, which social history had
taken as its primary area of interest, was in danger of becoming calcified.
Instead, he made a plea to look to other paths:

In order to avoid preconceived ideas about the kind of groupings into which
one should place men and events in order to study them, I have sought to
break down my material into its smallest elements. [] I have broken down
classes into groups, groups into smaller groups and then shown the diversity
that even the smallest groups contain. When one reaches the individual, one
still finds him highly complex, presenting a different face to every pressure,
behaving differently depending on the circumstances in which he finds
himself, in ways which may appear contradictory, and hardly ever becoming
quite predictable.


In the 1970s Zeldins was a voice crying in the wilderness. This was the era of
large-scale research projects in which social historians sought to come to
grips with the grand lines of historical development, with the favored methods
being those of quantitative analysis and historical demography. The emphasis
was on reaching conclusions that the researchers could claim extended to as
many facets of human existence as possible. This in turn demanded a
connected and coherent narrative of events and systems. Zeldins standpoint
is therefore unusual, as evidenced, for instance, in his following comment: I
have tried to maintain the richness and contradictions of life in my
presentation of it.[15] Zeldin also chose to emphasize the individual and his
or her position in society: Indeed I believe that it is the function of the
historian to show that life is more complicated the more you look at it; every
explanation of some aspect that we can find, nearly always leads to yet more
problems and uncertainties.[16] The vast majority of social historians,
however, chose to adopt an almost diametrically opposite approach in their
struggles with their research materials, generally presenting conclusions
aimed at demonstrating that the researcher had achieved a full command of
the material and a comprehensive mastery of the problem in hand. The
resultant narrative thus was all-encompassing, convincing and integrated.

A number of the contributors to the 10th anniversary issue of JSH assessed

the state of things from the perspectives of their own countries, notably
Harold Perkin in Britain, Hartmut Kaelble in Germany, and Michelle Perrot in
France.[17] One topic discussed by Perrot in her article is structure and the
importance for historians of rigorous research into the formal structures of

The determination of structures has been one of the major preoccupations of

social history, although the term structure has never been clearly defined.
Such history is resolutely quantitative, being based on the study of massive
notarial records and on registries. The underlying idea is that revenue, its
volume and nature, is the basis of classes and that by arriving at a knowledge
of revenue one may clearly perceive the structure of the hierarchy.


Perrots vision of historiography is fairly representative and the attitudes it

embodies are strikingly dominant throughout the articles published in the
volume. This is expressed most clearly in Kaelbles emphasis on quantitative
analysis and the structural forms of society: he declares that this approach is
still only in its infancy and that the subjects for study are inexhaustible. Similar
emphases are apparent in other articles in the volume, in which work, the
family, scientific methodology in social history, and political marxism are taken
for consideration with the watchwords always the same: the structural form
and organization of society and the importance of identifying its nature and

Elizabeth and Eugene Genovese, for example, make the point that the
recognition social history has gained derives not just from its subject matter,
its methodology and its technical handling of its material, but from
status.[20] Social history has to all intents and purposes superseded political
history and has thus assumed a mantle of leadership within the discipline as a
whole. The connections with marxism are obvious and significant. On how the
subject has developed, they comment that:

The influential structural enterprise that took shape in the hands of the
anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss favored the cold and unchanging in
human experience at the expense of the hot or dynamic. Drawing upon the
problematic developed by modern linguistics and adding an artists sensitivity
to the details of human activity, gesture, and record, Levi-Strauss elaborated
an almost textual method of decoding human behavior.


The Genoveses go on to point out the enormous impact that this way of
thinking has had on the ideas of social historians and others within the
humanities and social sciences about how best to approach their discipline,
ideas that consist in part of eschewing all political discussion of peoples
everyday lives. They reject the emphasis placed by some social historians on
the anthropological perspective, seeing this as being just as misplaced as
earlier trends within the subject characterized by cliometrics, econometric
history, and assorted other scientisms.[22] The Genoveses article excited
considerable attention at the time as a result of the importance they accorded
to political history and the need for social historians to take it more fully into

Now a few remarks on its rather unoriginal methodology, wrote Perrot in her
article, turning to the impact that new ideas have had on social history, which
is characterized by the primacy of descriptive micro-history, extension of
sources and the invasion of the quantitative. The extension of sources results
from the increasing penetration of latent social pathology everything is a
sign; everything has a meaning images, words, things, gestures, even
silence.[23] Perrot noted that scholars working in the field were looking to
conventional sources in the hope of finding a trace of something else. In his
article, Richard T. Vann discussed the significance of language (narrative),
stressing the need for scholars to be aware of the problems inherent in its use,
for instance when accounting for historical processes or phenomena.[24] This
is precisely what Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie called history without proper
names when attempting to define the primary objective of social history.

What characterizes the entire discussion are the rather disparate definitions of
the position of social history in the world of scholarship, a discipline which was
at the time clearly in a state of considerable ferment. The different scholars
reveal different emphases and different views on the status of the subject. In a
real sense this anniversary volume was a vivid testament to a highly inquiring
and diverse group of scholars that had yet to find a single overriding purpose
to their endeavors. The first ten years in the life of the JSH were thus a time of
great professional experimentation in which social historians were attempting
to reach conclusions about the fundamental principles of their subject and
what it had to offer. The most striking characteristic of the discipline at the
time remained its focus on structural analysis. The JSH, like all other journals
of the period, became a forum for discussion about what kind of subject social
history was or aimed to be.


A feature of Peter Stearnss editorship of the JSH has been the regular
discussion he initiated on the changing position of social history within the
broader academic world, largely through his introduction of a special section
in the journal entitled Social History Update. This feature of the journal
provides vivid evidence of the need that has always existed for a clear lead on
the future direction of the discipline. In the early days Stearns wrote these
sections entirely himself but as time went on others were invited to contribute.
As the editor of the JSH, Stearns is uniquely qualified to take a comprehensive
overview of the subject and, since the inception of the journal, has been better
placed than almost anyone to follow its trends and developments. His view
and analysis of social history are of great importance since they reflect the
editorial policy of the JSH and without doubt influence the directions writers
choose to take in their research, especially those who are trying to establish
themselves within the discipline at any given time. Stearnss articles, and those
of the editors of comparable learned journals, thus have a policymaking
function within an academic discipline such as social history.[25]
In the 1976 anniversary issue of the JSH mentioned earlier, Peter Stearns
presented his view of the then state of play in an article titled Coming of
Age. In this he took a broad view over the entire field and assessed the
position of the discipline on the tenth anniversary of the journal pulling
together disparate strands that were perhaps difficult to distinguish from a
reading of the other articles in the volume. He declared that these were good
times to be a social historian, echoing the view of Eric Hobsbawm expressed
some years earlier in the journal Daedalus: there had never been so many
journals specializing in the subject; the number of university courses including
sociohistorical material had increased dramatically in a short time; and new
subject areas and methods were constantly emerging, serving to keep social
history in the spotlight.[26] Many of the new areas of study, Stearns
maintained, had undergone such dramatic changes that their fields of
research had become almost unrecognizable: Stearns instanced here womens
history and black history. The influences could be traced for the most part to
the application of new technologies to research and a radically altered general
view of what was involved in the discipline.

As a consequence of these welcome developments, Stearns considered that

social history could now be considered a genuine force within the academic
community, building and gaining strength from year to year. Social history is
increasingly seen by its practitioners as a total historical approach, as Stearns
put it.[27] Similarly, he felt it the duty of social historians to cover all strands of
society if their work was to have any claim to legitimacy. He also urged the
need for as thorough a dialogue as possible on the state and methods of
social history, for the following reasons:

1. Many people were not really aware of exactly what social history involves.

2. There remained areas of uncertainty relating to the methodology of the


3. Social historians would not gain full control of their own discussions until
they strengthened the foundations on which discourse could take place and
provided a clearer account of the differences between their subject and
traditional history.

All these points that Stearns mentioned reflected particular problems facing
social history at a time of great expansion and progress. Stearns was clearly
proposing procedures designed to strengthen the discipline and hold it
together. All this made perfectly good sense, since at the time he was writing
the subject had been in a state of considerable flux for getting on for two
decades. It was a landmark time for the subject and the victory of social
history appeared to be on the horizon. Everyone wanted to be a social
historian, and this was part of the problem as Stearns saw it: in the minds of
many the subject was everything and nothing, and thus more or less anybody
could claim a part in it if it suited their purposes. As a result, social historians
were urged to close ranks and initiate constructive methodological dialogue.
The anniversary edition of JSH was clearly envisaged as a step in this direction.
Stearnss faith in the discipline remained unshaken and he looked forward to a
time when it would become a central and influential player in the academic
curriculum. For the social historian, he wrote, the ultimate task is to create
an overall picture of a society in all its facets, with appropriate weight given to

Going on from here, Stearns lay down some lines that were later to feature
more prominently in his thinking:

As in other fields, the grand syntheses can be undertaken by only a few; most
social historians will content themselves with subtopics, though an active
sense of the larger society should be involved. The work should be
generalizable, of substantive and methodological interest to scholars who
have no concern for the particular period or area.


Calls for grand syntheses were completely understandable in the early

1980s, at a time when the subject was winning its spurs within the academic
world; it was necessary to convince the doubters that social history stood on
strong epistemological foundations, with something new to teach all
historians. Stearns set out his stall in the form of a fairly sharp polemic
directed at social historians and how they thought and worked, as for example
at the very end of his article:

Lack of generalized, and rigorous training, distraction from internal

methodological and conceptual problems, plus the limitations on approaches
to a broad social synthesis as opposed to spinning off one subfield after
another urban history again being a case in point all suggest the need to
recognize social history as an independent discipline. Undeniably, progress
has been made within the present framework, and more can come.


Many of the issues mentioned by Stearns in his article were to go on to

become important areas for debate in the years that followed. Others,
however, fell by the way and new opinions and controversies appeared to take
their place.
Over the following years Peter Stearns wrote several more articles in the JSH
and elsewhere discussing the state of social history in general, as well as
particular aspects within it. In an article from 1980 his view of things is very
much as it was as in Coming of Age. In this new article, Towards a Wider
Vision, Stearns sees social history first and foremost as being in a state of flux
but still gaining ground: more courses are being offered, attempts are being
made to define the sphere of the subject, and new subdisciplines connected
with social history are constantly springing up.[31] Moreover, books written by
social historians are starting to have an impact well beyond the narrow
confines of the academic world; some are becoming bestsellers and so
reaching a far wider readership. But, in Stearnss opinion, there was still room
for improvement: far too much of the excellent material being produced was
still not reaching the eyes or ears of the general reader.

The article demonstrated convincingly the advances made within the

discipline and how successful social historians had been in disseminating their
work both within academic circles and beyond. As a result, social history had
become a powerful and influential subject that appeared to offer enormous
possibilities to the world of humanistic studies. Stearns pointed out, however,
that this sudden burgeoning had brought with it certain problems: the subject
was suffering from a degree of chaos and confusion, chiefly as a result of the
reluctance apparent among social historians to pull their various strands
together (i.e. produce syntheses) or adopt specific procedures to direct their
studies along particular lines. Stearns described the prevailing conditions thus:

They [the American contributions] consist of the expansionextraordinarily

rapid during recent yearsof sociohistorical inquiry into an unprecedentedly
wide range of social groupings and activities, the proliferation of angles of
vision on a social experience whose totality is only rarelyby a few Marxists, a
few Braudelians, perhaps a handful of modernization theoristsseen as
encompassable. This topical expansion has been accompanied by a
diversification of methodology, most notably in the introduction of
quantitative methods, although recently some hesitation has been expressed
about their range and implications.


Stearns then went on to argue persuasively that social history was rapidly
attaining a position of major influence within the academic community, above
all on the strength of its highly varied approach to diverse subjects and
materials. That is, the variety and complexity of social history was both its
strength and its weakness, since this diversity was leading to a blurring of the
general picture. But social history revolved to a large extent around the study
of disparate groups within society, groups that perhaps had been little studied
before, and by bringing them into the spotlight social historians were
succeeding in demonstrating the strength of their approach. Research into
these groups, then, needed simultaneously to apply and to test social science
models drawn often from anthropology as well as sociology, and to compare
results with those of other historical inquiries.[33] Despite this, Stearns
expressed his view that there had been a lack of experimentation directed
toward a fuller understanding of particular periods and regions.

Stearns also pointed the spotlight at the great upsurge in quantitative

analysis, although the union of social history with quantification remains
incomplete.[34] At the very end of the article he suggested various ways out
of the constraining framework of the quantitative approach, directions that
the discipline was to explore with great vigor in the latter years of the 1980s
and on into the 1990s. The most important of these were cultural history and
what has been called thick description or the anthropological perspective,
approaches and emphases that were to become increasingly prominent in the
work of historians in the final years of the century.[35]

Five years after Towards a Wider Vision Stearns published another article
along similar lines, Social History and History: A Progress Report.[36] As in its
predecessors, he used this article to offer a survey of social history and
present his assessment of its current position. In Stearnss view, social history
in 1985 was going through a period of considerable buoyancy and success,
remaining vigorous and innovative: it had managed to establish its
independence from conventional history, and this independence was
something that needed to be guarded. With each passing year it was proving
more and more difficult to offer a satisfactory definition of the subject. But
there were also potential perils that needed to be addressed: A few new
dangers have arisen as well, notably in a fascination with social history as
anthropology which threatens to go beyond welcome interest in values and
mentalities to a reluctance to treat social change.[37] And Stearns repeats,
and this time with greater force than previously, his view that the need to
discuss a new synthesis between social and conventional topics and
approaches at the level of history teaching has become increasingly
pressing.[38] He encouraged scholars to engage in franks and open
discussion on methods and approaches within historical studies, especially in
the face of criticism from conventional historians that required responding to.
In Stearnss view, this outside critique did not have a great deal in it, but
even so addressing it might prove a valuable exercise.
Stearns specified three distinguishing features of social history at the time of

1. a focus on groups other than those in power,

2. a focus on aspects of life and society other than politics,

3. a view of history centering on patterns or processes of culture, power

relationships and behavior rather than events.

This definition, wrote Stearns, I believe, holds for all social historians, no
matter what their view of social history and radical politics, or social history
and quantification, or social history and mentalities. It is in this sense that I
find it useful to identify important tensions in social history while dismissing
them as challenges to fundamental identification.[39]

Stearns noted that one of the most salient features of social history in the
foregoing years had been the almost endless proliferation of new
subdisciplines that scholars seemed to be vying with each other to introduce.
The subjects tackled were of considerable interest and these experiments were
injecting sociohistorical research with an atmosphere of great vitality. Stearns
was plainly of the view that this trend had been to the benefit of the subject as
a whole but that it had also brought with it certain problems. Here he
returned again to the fragmentation that was often apparent between
different fields, that to outside observers might suggest that those working
within the discipline had precious little in common with one another; the
result had been delayed efforts to produce coherent survey-level social
history material, and to some extent distracted from the fact that many topics
did indeed interrelate through their common subjection to certain key
developments such as industrialization, the growth of literacy and so
on.[40] But whatever the situation now, in time this trend must eventually
peter out, since there was simply a limit to the number of new subjects that
had yet to be studied. Thus one might expect scholars to start turning back to
older material with an eye to developing new ways to investigate it. One such
attempt lay in the concept of thick description, which Stearns considered
charged with potential dangers, since it paid little attention to coherently
describing or explaining social change which in Stearnss eyes was the
paramount duty of the historian. In the same way, he considered event-
defined narrative to be in all instances fatally limited and unable to stand
comparison with the different approaches used by social historians.

Stearns had little time for general criticism of social history, which he found to
be superficial and of little value. The undeniable fact was that social historians
had applied their imaginations with great skill to make breakthroughs into
new areas and treat new material that had fallen under their attention. The
one criticism that Stearns accepted might have something in it was largely a
result of this otherwise positive development, viz. the lack of direction in the
discipline, which could be put down to the rapid changes it had undergone.
According to Stearns, social historians needed to respond to this by
attempting to produce a more definitive synthesis: They require, in some
cases, more stringent standards for conceiving and evaluating monographic
productions.[41] This was something that, as mentioned, Stearns had
discussed previously, and it is fair to say that at this particular juncture the
demand for greater synthesis seemed more justifiable than at any time before:
social history had become so diverse that it was important for a scholar of the
stature of Stearns to urge its practitioners to consider their relationships with
other intellectual trends and movements. It was perfectly natural for a forum
like the JSH to solicit solutions of this kind in order to bolster the position of
the subject and strengthen it still further. Stearns went on to discuss the
potential benefits that might accrue from direct contact between scholars
working on different areas of research, and how scholars might learn from the
experience gained in other disciplines when tackling similar periods or
phenomena. He makes the following arresting observation on the state of the
subject as he saw it in 1985:

If we remove the proof-of-durability burden from social historians, and

recognize the field as established and indeed expanding fact, then we can
increasingly ask not only what conventional historians are going to do about
social history which is what much of the previously-discussed critique has
been about but also what social historians are going to do about
conventional history.


This clearly puts social history in a new context. The discipline was no longer
under any onus to have to convince other historians of its right to exist but
had become a model for a changed approach to the past whose influence
extended far beyond the countries of the West. It was thus in a new and
unique position to tackle comparative research with greater vigor than ever
before and so increase its influence within the world of learning.

On the right track

The subsequent period, the last years of the 1980s and the beginning of the
1990s, was, as Peter Stearns had predicted, characterized by two areas of
debate. First, historians working within the different subdisciplines of social
history clearly took Stearnss message on board and put increased emphasis
on strengthening the theoretical foundations of their areas of study; efforts
were made to consolidate individual fields through discussion of the state of
knowledge and the advances achieved through research within them. Second,
there was an ongoing debate on how to bring the many disparate fields within
the discipline together through a synthesis that would accommodate the
ideas of different scholars, with the aim of making the part of social history
within general historiography more telling.[43] The period saw a number of
critical attempts to institutionalize the discipline, a trend that had already been
going on for some time but which now received a new and greatly enhanced

In response to the two developments mentioned above, a lively debate took

place in the Social History Update pages of the JSH on various aspects of
social history. The contributors represented a wide spectrum of interests
within the discipline; examples included articles, all concentrating on
methodology, on the current situation in areas such as social mobility, the
American contribution to social history, spatial analysis, legal history, slave
resistance, sociology and emotions.[44] All these articles constituted
significant contributions to the debate then going on within the subject on its
current position and how best to move it forward into the future. In other
words, social historians at this time were looking inwards and asking
themselves in increasing measure where their discipline stood and how it
aligned itself within the broader patterns of general history.

Around this same time Peter Stearns introduced a new and radical factor into
the equation, the challenges of postmodernism.[45] This was followed two
years later by an important paper by Joseph and Timothy Kelly on the new
historicism.[46] These two articles were the first, so far as I am aware, in the
pages of the JSH to bring up the subject of postmodernism within the context
of social history to any significant extent with one highly interesting
exception in the form of an article by Ellen Somekawa and Elizabeth Smith
published in 1988.[47] Somekawa and Smiths article was something genuinely
challenging and innovative, coming as it did like a dash of cold water in the
faces of the readers. Peter Stearns himself has remarked that no other article
in his time at the journal excited such a huge response. This paper of
Somekawa and Smiths can therefore be seen as something of a foretaste of
what was to come.

In his 1990 article on postmodernism Stearns made the point that much of
what the postmodernists had been advocating had a direct bearing on the
current ideas and working practices of social historians. In this regard he cited
three aspects in particular:

1. Ideas about power and authority and their place and status in the sources:
how the voice of power in the sources influences the way scholars conduct
their research.

2. The emphasis on cultural factors in the study of societies of past ages. Both
the postmodernists and the social historians had accepted the importance of
working with texts of all kinds, without exception. Stearns expressed the
potential connection here as follows: To the extent that post-modernists,
despite somewhat different points of origin, add to the concern for popular
cultures, relevant textual evidence, and issues of interpretation, they offer
some possibility of fruitful dialogue with a significant branch of social

3. An interest shared by both postmodernists and social historians in an

interdisciplinary approach in their research. On this point, however, Stearns
anticipated certain obstacles to fruitful dialogue: Here, however, their
talisman is the new literary criticism, sometimes labeled literary historicism or
post-structuralism, rather than one or another of the social sciences.[49]

The main problems of dialogue between the postmodernists and the social
historians thus related to this third point, though even here, according to
Stearns, there were manifest points of contact between the two parties,
particularly as regards the new emphasis apparent among literary critics on
increased attention to context. This gave Stearns cause for optimism despite
the obvious distance separating, on the one hand, deconstruction, the
language model and poststructuralism and, on the other, social history:
Nevertheless, developments in literary and in sociohistorical research are
sufficiently parallel to permit some new dialogues across humanistic, as well as
social science, boundaries.[50]

Stearns plainly took the view that certain social historians would be able to
enter into constructive dialogue with moderate postmodernists, to their
mutual benefit, particularly in connection with the study of cultural
relationships in the past. But, as Stearns made clear, what influence
postmodernism might have was far from obvious; there were very few who
were actively involved in research based on this ideology and thus no way of
predicting what the outcome might be.

Another noticeable feature of this article is a perceptible change in Stearnss

assessment of the current position of social history within the world of
humanistic studies, a change that marks a definite turning point in discussions
of the discipline: Social historians are now part of the establishment, though
as recent deviants they (we) may be particularly sensitive to the slings of the
new rebels on the block.[51] Up to this point social history had always felt
itself somewhat on the defensive: the subject had, to be sure, established its
position, but it still needed to be wary of some very powerful opposition. But
now, just at a time when a new force was making its entry onto the scene
clamouring for its voice to be heard, social history appears in a new context,
that of part of the establishment. It is important to bear in mind that Stearns
considered it a matter of great importance to consider and discuss the new
ideas that were emanating from postmodernism and how they might
influence social history in the future, for better or worse. Stearnss
observations were without doubt absolutely valid for the particular time they
were made, as regards both the then position of social history and the
opportunities that were opening up through dialogue between social
historians and postmodernism.

Many of the same comments apply to the article by the Kelly brothers, Joseph
and Timothy, published in the Spring 1992 issue of the JSH. The Kellys
provided a highly informative discussion of the common properties that linked
social history and the new trends in literary criticism and analysis that were
known under the label of New Historicism. They made an impassioned plea
for social historians and literary critics to work together to get the best out of
what each discipline had to offer, disciplines that to a certain extent shared
common goals. Above anything else, social historians could focus the eyes of
literary critics on the central question of Who read these texts?, something
the latter had hitherto rather tended to take for granted, and thereby open up
for them an entirely new relationship with their material. Put simply, the Kellys
felt that literary critics needed to learn to pay closer attention to the historical
connections of their material. In return, social historians could learn from
literary critics the importance of discourse in their study of texts of all kinds
and the complex interplay of the different forces at work in their material.

The Kellys article touched on several other interesting points that lie beyond
the scope of the present discussion. However, one feature of their
presentation attracted my particular attention: in their article they speak of
social history as a single, uniform discourse Social historians seek to
reconstruct a societys shared experience, and the societys members
understanding of their experience exhibiting a certitude and confidence
that can be taken as yet further evidence of the strong position attained by
social history in the last decade of the 20th century.[52]This comment should
be viewed in the light of the fact that for much of the previous decade Peter
Stearns and others had been encouraging a unification of different
standpoints within social history in order to make it possible to speak of the
subject as a single entity.

The view expressed in the Kelly brothers paper can be seen as a manifestation
of an attitude that was to become more prominent as the 1990s progressed
and is echoed in the writings of many other historians who discussed the
discipline in this period. This is the them and us approach, something that
had colored all discussion of the position and domain of social history from
the 1970s up to the last decade of the 20th century but which now came to
the fore more strongly than ever. So, just when it might have been expected
that social history might change in this regard at a time when a new
approach had appeared on the scene it seems for all the world as if the
discipline slammed the door on itself, with an insistance that social history was
something quite different and unique, completely separate from other areas
of scholarship, that it was a law unto itself, with its own rules and practices in
which other disciplines had no part. This hardening of attitudes can be traced
to the conflicts surrounding the History Standards for High Schools and
Colleges and the new political climate of the 1990s. It is my belief that this
proved to be a turning point in the otherwise relentless advance of social
history that had stretched back to the 1960s. It was at this point that the
subject lost its scholarly drive and impetus and the sense of adventure that
had carried it forward for three decades, and set out to entrench its position,
to defend its status and domain, it seems to me without regard for the
dangers this carried with it.

The summary presented here of the recent past of social history highlights
both the way in which the disciplines most influential wing developed and the
kind of problems it was faced with in the last decade of the 20th century.
However, while these things were still going on, various scholarly experiments
were being conducted outside France and the English-speaking world that in
some ways followed quite different lines. These experiments in fact had clear
points of contact with the developments described earlier, but took
completely new directions and managed to avoid some of the pitfalls faced by
other social historians at the time. In particular, they gave every appearance of
being better equipped to adapt themselves to the changes invoked by
postmodernism and poststructuralism. I shall return to this later, after first
turning the attention on how scholars in Germany and Italy responded to the
challenges of the new social and cultural history, under the banners
of Alltagsgeschichte and microhistory.
4. Alltagsgeschichte

In the eyes of most observers, the study of history in Germany stood well
behind what was going on in neighboring countries. The stagnation of the
discipline can be ascribed in large measure to the problems of the postwar
years and the powerful conservatism that accompanied them fear of the
power of memories.[53] When history did eventually manage to revitalize itself
in Germany in the 1970s and 1980s, it developed along rather different lines
from what had been happening in most other parts of the Western world.
Geoff Eley traces the movement of social history in Germany in an overview
article in the Journal of Modern History: he has a clear and firm view on what
constituted the most important influences in this resurgence:

One was the shift from an institutionally and biographically centered

conception of the labor movement to the analysis of the class itself and its
conditions of life, with a new stress on consciousness, culture, and ways of
life. The second was the gravitation of empirical research to a novel territory
beyond either politics or work, defined more residually than theoretically in
cultural terms, but suggested by all the characteristic themes of New Left
counter-cultural discourse-community and self-management; popular
recreation, from entertainment to drinking and sport; madness, criminality,
and deviance; youth; the family; and eventually the history of women,
sexuality, and gender.


This is a familiar list and could apply to social history research throughout the
world. To this, Eley goes on to add history from below as the third link in the
revival of the discipline in Germany, something that was later to have
considerable influence on German historiography and that deserves to be
considered in rather greater detail. Eley cites the well-known slogan of social
history history from the bottom up when defining the kind of history that
deals with ordinary people in their day-to-day environment. In Germany this
emerged much later than elsewhere in the western world but still found itself
face to face with the same basic questions.

From the very outset, social history in Germany took on special features of its
own that reflect both its strengths and its weaknesses. One aspect of this
development the one most keenly argued about and that most
distinguished it from history as practiced in most other parts of the world
was a wave of research that acquired the name Alltagsgeschichte in German,
perhaps best rendered in English as history of everyday life. This work
achieved enormous popularity in the 1970s and had, initially at least, strong
political roots. This research had its origins among folklorists and students of
popular culture and was almost entirely the product of enthusiasts working in
their own home regions, often people with some kind of historical training
from the 1950s and 1960s but with no professional experience as historians.
Eley names these people barefoot historians and notes how entirely
untouched they were by any institutional connections, either within academia
or elsewhere.[55] On the basis of this work a more formal movement grew up
under the name of Geschichtswerkstatt (History Workshop), with connections
among the peace movement in Europe and with the rise of the Greens in
German politics. This movement turned the history of everyday life into a
structured attempt to capture a past that belonged to all people, the whole of
German society. It was to a certain extent directed as a counter to traditional
political history such as labor history in the way it was practiced in Germany at
the time, and in fact more widely. The history of everyday life became a kind
of symbol for a democratic ideology within the German state and was used as
a tool to confront and face up to a previous period, the period of Nazism,
something that traditional history had been largely reluctant to do. This made
it highly controversial in Germany, and by the same token influential.

Geoff Eley identifies four main characteristics of the history of everyday life in
Germany. Firstly, he notes the powerful influence of conventional history in
Germany over the shaping of this new method of treating the past. Traditional
history was very strongly colored by historical ideology, as a result of which
historical analysis tended to revolve around political theories. This was a
complex process with many varied ramifications, as Eley points out, and
without doubt had a major influence on the history of everyday life and what
went into it: What I want to suggest is that this interest in a theory of human
needs imparted a quality to West German Alltagsgeschichte that was not
present in the earlier Anglo-American literature and forms a powerful motif in
the current discussion.[56] Evidence of this influence appears widely in
German monographs produced in the spirit of the history of everyday life, for
instance in the much more solid methodological foundations underlying
German research of this type than in comparable research in the English-
speaking world.

A second distinguishing feature of the research tradition of German history of

everyday life lies in the use made by historians of the methods of ethnology
and anthropology in their attempts to identify explanations of past
phenomena and events. Eley makes the following observation: This
ethnological turn was partly a response to the optimistic teleology of
modernization and the objectivist concern with the structures and processes
of macro-historical development that seemed to dominate West German
historical social science. [...] In this sense, the perspective of history from
below the interest in historical losers or in non-establishment views of the
processes of change found natural sustenance in much recent
anthropology.[57] This approach to the subject matter was both complicated
and highly controversial among historians since the interpretative methods
used in anthropology ran rather counter to received practice in traditional

Thirdly, this appeal to the methods of anthropology diverted history toward

what Eley calls the sociology of subjective meaning. The focus moved away
from impersonal research into the structure of society and its long-term
development toward the actual experience of the people themselves: Shifting
perspective onto the internal costs of social transformations in this way
brings the casualties of progress more to the forefront of historical inquiry, as
Edward Thompson and others in the Anglo-American discussion had so
eloquently argued.[58] Social scientists, and historians who had earlier taken
up their methods, had up until now operated on the assumption that the lives
of people followed specific rules and laws that were independent of their
personal conditions (objective). In place of this, historians now sought to
capture social and cultural phenomena as they appeared to the eyes of real
men and women, young and old, in order to focus upon individuals and their
experiences. By choice they turned their attention on the smallest units of
society and were struck by various anomalous features in peoples behavior,
things it was hard to accommodate within the formalized research framework
of the social sciences. Here the model was history from below with the
characteristics discussed earlier in this paper. But it is also fair to say that at
times the history of everyday life got very close to microhistory as practiced in
Italy and more widely around the world, through always retaining its own
special flavor, the product of the German cultural environment.

Fourth and lastly, the history of everyday life in Germany was marked by a
special interest in the Nazi period. This research had, obviously, a clearly
political complexion and touched on various problems that German history
and German society had for the most part been reluctant to acknowledge. The
history of everyday life focused attention on the part played by private citizens
in the Nazi atrocities. The people who carried out this research were of all
ages and came from a wide range of backgrounds. The German historian Alf
Ldtke describes as follows the competition that gripped the whole country in
the 1970s under the catchphrase daily life under the National Socialists:
One of the exercises in the competition was to conduct interviews with
contemporaries. Thirteen-, fourteen- and also eighteen-year-olds asked
grandparents, great-uncles and aunts, what was it like, then? for them
personally, at their place of work, in the neighbourhood or in the local
community.[59] Though this was not the first time questions of this kind had
been asked, it was the relationship between the questioner and the
respondent that now made them so potent and unusual. As Ldtke readily
admits, in practice the results of this research were uneven, but from the way
he describes it investigations of this kind clearly touched something deep
within the German national soul.

The campaign conducted in the 1970s in the name of the history of everyday
life owed much to earlier research along similar lines that had already opened
new windows on the reign of terror. To cite one influential example, in his
book The Nazi Seizure of Power, first published in 1965, William Sheridan Allen
took a single small town in Germany and attempted to recreate the everyday
reality of its people at all levels of society during the 1930s and 1940s. Allen
discussed his approach in his introduction to the first edition:

If a microcosm has the drawback of being nonrepresentative, it has the

advantage of permitting a close and detailed study. The smaller number of
actors makes it possible for the historian to come near to knowing them all.
Variables are limited and there is a comprehensible and relatively constant
background. Immediacy and reality are enhanced. One can fit actions into the
pattern of daily life and thus determine why individuals acted as they did, why
Germans made the kind of choices that let Hitler into power. It was this
possibility, more than anything else, that led me to research into the fate of a
town which would otherwise not deserve even a footnote in a general study of
the rise of Nazism.


Here in a nutshell Allen encapsulates the essence of this kind of history, both
its strengths and its weaknesses. But writing contemporary history in this way
involved unforeseen problems. In the same introduction, Allen describes how
he resolved one such that without doubt touched the very heart of his

Small towns the world over have two aspects in common: little privacy and
much gossip. Before I ever began my research I came to the conclusion that
not only should the names of informants and other principal characters be
kept secret but the actual name of the town would have to be disguised.
Consequently anyone who looks on a map or in an encyclopedia for
Thalburg will not find it. This precaution was also part of a promise which I
made to the city fathers and to all those interviewed. Scholars who want to
pursue the matter will find the identity of the town plus a list and
identification of sources on file at the History Department of the University of


Though it was the research into the Nazi period that probably attracted most
attention, there was also a great deal of work done on apolitical subjects
such as peoples general customs and ways of living at different periods.
Research of this kind presents particular problems and often runs the risk of
degenerating into nothing more than a catalog of superficial descriptions of
peoples living conditions popular tales as opposed to historical scholarship.
This danger is of course not confined to German historiography; it has, for
example, beguiled many Icelandic historians into eschewing historical analysis
in favor of mere description and commentary.[62]

Alf Ldtke gives special consideration to this problem in connection with the
research done by the barefoot historians on the Nazi period in Germany,
taking as his example the investigations into Nazi party activities in one
particular village. Many years after the events, people were interviewed and
asked to describe what went on at the party headquarters. Their accounts
were almost exclusively very bland and pat, for all the world as if describing
working life in the offices of any middle-sized company at the same period.
Nobody admitted to being aware of anything unusual and it was difficult to
get people to put their experiences into a wider context. Ldtke then goes on
to say: In order to know our everyday office life, must we not investigate
every possible department at all levels? To complete the description it would
presumably be necessary to record the daily life of the neighbouring revenue
office and other local and regional agencies, nor could businesses, private
households, youth groups or schoolclasses be excluded. In short, everyday
life comes to imply the whole totality of social relations in all their many
facets.[63] It of course took a considerable time before scholars came fully to
grips with the ideas expressed here and a large part of the discipline never
managed to take them fully on board, just as happened in many other parts of
the world. Everything depends on the context of things, which of course in
turn depends on the subject under investigation. If no pertinent context is
provided, we are left with nothing but meaningless stories and descriptions with
little power to shed new light on the workings of society.

To take a second example, political history, for instance labor history, tends to
go into considerable detail on the formal operations of workers associations
and labor unions. Scholars researching this subject have often speculated on
the extent of peoples political consciousness. Such research almost always
limits itself to investigating these peoples direct collective action and their
participation in measures aimed at improving their conditions. It is the
contention of everyday-life historians that this does not tell the whole story.
Much more wide-ranging research is needed before we can gain a proper
appreciation of the politics in which ordinary people were involved, directly or
indirectly. This is not something that can be measured solely in terms of
individual workers attendance at meetings or participation in formal protests.
Their minds were often preoccupied with other matters, matters that were
nonetheless highly political. Ldtke puts it like this:

But were there not other interests? What of the demands that as yet found no
common or public expression: the sufferings and joys, the fears and hopes of
the economically and politically dependent? Were the impositions of
authorities no more than a fabric of organisation and norms both in the case
of direct attacks, such as the brutal paternalism manifested in the treatment of
servants, and in the case of a mixture of physical and non-physical force, such
as that exerted by the police, the military and schools? These silent struggles
were just as crucial as those observed in direct protest. A mode of life,
therefore, is in no way a sharply delineated superstructure. For all the very
different groups of the wage-dependent and the subjugated, work
organisation or authoritarian violence is present only in the form in which it is
perceived, expressed or suppressed or even rejected and transformed in their
own social practice.


According to this way of looking at things, politics is all around us and the role
of ordinary people in life cannot be explained or defined solely on the basis of
their formal interactions. It is important to include within the political more
than simply strategically calculated action, writes Ldtke in his article on
everyday life history, going on to say:

If we do not, we divide the totality of emotional expressions and symbolic

meanings; we ignore the fact that it is these which transform ideal types into
(inconsistently) acting individuals and groups. It is a fair assumption that the
supposedly resigned or apathetic who do not participate in collective action
or organisation have their own quieter and for them equally effective ways
of satisfying their needs, stilling their hopes and longings and avoiding of
compensating for their fears. In the case of factory workers in nineteenth-
century Germany, one example would be sexual licentiousness. Another
would be the presence of family members at the midday break. In each case
power relations are involved.


Above anything else, the history of everyday life often needs to be defined in
a way that permits its nature, which is fluctuating and indistinct, the outcome
of endless possible ways of acting, to speak for itself. Everyday life is the stage
on which ordinary people are able to assert themselves through conduct and
actions that impinge on their immediate environments. It is both defined and
directed into particular channels by people in ways irrelevant to the public at
large. But human experience is so diverse that within these parameters there
are endless possibilities for articulation of modes of existence.

The German historian Dorothee Wierling makes the following remark on

peoples everyday life and its meaning: The objection that even Bismarck had
an everyday life points to the circumstances that most persons have nothing
but that ordinary everyday life that is, their action and influence do not
extend beyond its boundaries while certain other persons have an everyday
private life in addition. However, the latter make decisions and exercise power
beyond its confines, as individuals or members of organizations and
institutions.[66] The question here is thus whether and how people who live
conventionalized lives can have an influence on the way society develops.

It is possible to maintain that everyday life represents a kind of opposition to

the institutions of society, that it is more or less reflex and unfathomable. But
this is far from saying that it is not in any way subject to rules. People are
constantly attempting to define their everyday experience and identify its
logical context. In the light of how they do this, they make decisions that are
clearly circumscribed by their apparent options. Wierling makes the following
observation: That behavior becomes part of a larger historical process which
the history of everyday life aspires to describe and explain: what experiences
give rise to everyday perceptions and orientations of action; how do they
change, and what is their impact of the general contexture of historical
processes?[67] This linking in with larger wholes is a key feature of the history
of everyday life and in this many German historians have met with
considerable success.

The most significant feature of this everyday life history is that much of it at
least makes an attempt to approach, in a far more conscious and directed way
than comparable work in the English- and French-speaking academic worlds,
the subjects of history from the point of view of the individuals themselves.
Individuals experiences of life become a source of valuable evidence that
historians consciously seek to research. This can be said to represent a major
change of emphasis from customary practice in countries like Britain, France
and the USA; in Germany it is the testimony of the individual that is in demand,
and this is then treated as the testimony of nameless representatives (groups)
rather than of the individuals themselves.

It needs to be emphasized that there are clear lines of connection between

German everyday life history and the western tradition of history from below,
the former having taken much of its material and its approach from the latter.
The difference lies in the attempt made by the history of everyday life to
create stronger methodological foundations for its research than took place,
for instance, in Britain and America. The development of the discipline was
colored by its political background in Germany, and it is to this that we can
ascribe its differences from the forms of history found elsewhere in western
Europe. It was however in Italy that the step toward a fully independent
research methodology for history from below was taken the whole way and
without compromise, in the work of the microhistorians.

5. The Methods of Microhistory

Of the recent developments in social history discussed in this article, perhaps

the most radical originated in Italy under the name of microstoria, known in
the English-speaking world as microhistory and rendered by me into
Icelandic as einsaga.[68]If we examine the main features of microhistory, there
are particularly five points that require closer scrutiny. Some of these have
already been mentioned in one way or another in this discussion in
connection with history from below in England, America and France
and Alltagsgeschichte in Germany.[69] I have no intention here of providing a
detailed account of what prompted the practitioners of microhistory such as
Carlo Ginzburg to set about tackling historical research in this way, but one
main point is worth mentioning, viz. the feeling that built up among these
Italian historians that there was a need to question the methods of the
French Annales school and the historiographical tradition that had developed
within it. As Ginzburg and his colleagues saw it, the Annalistes emphasis on
long periods, large-scale historical processes and wide geographical areas
gave no scope for the ways in which individuals looked at things and arranged
their lives from day to day; there was a failure to provide any satisfactory
account of the many, varied contradictions that characterize the lives of all
individuals and their struggles with themselves and their environment, both
formally and informally. There was a need to react against this research
tradition, and this meant a conscious attempt to acquire a fresh view of
historical subjects. And the best way of doing this was by coming up with new
research questions and seeking new and unconventional ways of answering

The American historian Guido Ruggiero points out in the introduction to his
book Sex and Gender in Historical Perspective that the methods of
microhistory have been directed particularly at making increased use of the
individual to identify larger structural changes within society: At its best, this
approach seems to promise a method that will help overcome the
depersonalization and abstractness of social history without losing its insights
on the broader structural factors that condition events. At the least, by
portraying how individuals respond to and make decisions in the face of such
factors as they perceive them in a concrete historical situation, this perspective
provides an important caution on the too easy spinning of the web of modern
theory back into the past.[70]

To start off with, one feature that characterizes the work of all microhistorians
and stands in stark contrast to the methods of the Annalistes is that the units
and subjects that have attracted their attention have in almost all cases been
small ones the individual, some particular incident that would hardly ever be
classed as a major event, a limited part of the society or the like.[71] The
Italian microhistorian, Giovanni Levi, says the following on this aspect of
microhistory and the units its studies:

Microhistory as a practice is essentially based on the reduction of the scale of

observation, on a microscopic analysis and an intensive study of the
documentary material. This definition already gives rise to possible
ambiguities: it is not simply a question of addressing the causes and effects of
the fact that different dimensions coexist in every social system, in other
words, the problem of describing vast complex social structures without losing
sight of the scale of each individuals social space and hence, of people and
their situation in life. It is not, therefore, a matter of conceptualizing the idea
of scale as a factor inherent in all social systems and as an important
characteristic of the contexts of social interaction including different
quantitative and spatial dimension. This problem has been amply discussed
among anthropologists who have presented the concept of scale in just this
perspective: scale as an object of analysis which serves to measure the
dimensions in the field of relationships [...] For microhistory the reduction of
scale is an analytical procedure, which may be applied anywhere
independently of the dimensions of the object analysed.

The center of gravity of historical explanation and analysis is shifted through a
process known as systematic decentering away from what might be called
the functioning of the formal structure of society, which is always central to
peoples lives, and on to peoples individual experience of their own
surroundings. The German historian Alf Ldtke expresses it thus: At issue now
is a reorientation in which theory deals with more than just the level of
conception (Begriff): it encompasses the very act of conceptualizing, idea
formation (Vorstellen) as well. Theory aims at making data comprehensible
but includes the act of conceptualizing (or imagining) the synchronism of
individual elements or development, even if they should prove to be
contradictory, or perhaps unrelated.[73] By this method it becomes possible
to account both for the connections between events that may be predictable
in advance and for aspects where the outcome is entirely unexpected and
impossible to bargain for. Ldtke explains this further:

By referring to this uneven factor, and to the multiple ambivalences of social

practice, inquiry can disclose and pinpoint the specific patchwork of


incentives, symbols

interests. It becomes possible to reconstruct forms of (re)appropriation by
historical subjects without the necessity of having to assume any sequential
hierarchy of conditioning factors or conditioned factors. An important
deduction from this is that interests and objective constraints are not
anterior to practice, but an integral part of it. They are perceived both by
individuals and groups via the agency of interpretations. The repertory of
these interpretations also bears traces of interests; overall, it preserves the
multiplicity of individual and collective experience.


By reducing the radius of the research (or the scale of observation) we open
up opportunities to distinguish elements in peoples lives and society that
might otherwise pass unnoticed. I can illustrate this point from personal
experience, from research conducted into the life and conditions of a farmers
son, Halldr Jnsson of Midalsgrf in Strandassla in the northwest of
Iceland, material I have used in a number of studies in recent years. Halldr,
and indeed other members of his family and friends, left behind them an
enormous quantity of personal sources including diaries and letters. Through
detailed research into the course of his life over a 24-year period, i.e. for the
time he was keeping his diary, signs emerge of a considerably more complex
society, with more in common with the early stages of industrialization
sometimes known as proto-industry, than the system of agricultural self-
sufficiency that most historians have claimed as characterizing the Icelandic
farming community in the 19th century.[75] This finding raises many questions
about the nature of rural society in the second half of the 19th century. For
instance, what kind of scope was there within it for individuals to determine
their own actions? Most historians have maintained that such scope was
extremely restricted, limited entirely to peoples change of status from being
in employed service in their youths to independent heads of households later
in life. This process was seen as being part of the regular course of a mans life
and considered utterly natural and is entirely in keeping with the findings of
most research into historical demography. The Icelandic historian, Gumundur
Hlfdanarson, professor at the Department of History at the University of
Iceland, describes the situation thus in a book called slensk jflagsrun:

If the census of 1850 is used as a source for the life course of individuals in the
middle years of the 19th century, we can see how interlinked the upbringing
of children and young people was with the production system in Iceland. An
occupational class of farmers was not a career that individuals selected out of
a certain number of options but a condition that reflected peoples age and
development. To take a comparison from nature, each individuals situation
was like a season in his or her life. How long each stage lasted varied greatly,
but in broad detail everyone followed the same path. Each stage of life was
different from the others, e.g. farmers and servants clearly did not have the
same rights and duties, but in a sense each class for itself was merely a link in
one and the same chain, an integral part in human experience. Working
people (working men, though, much rather than working women) could
tolerate the hardships and lack of rights that went with service because it was
only a temporarily situation, preparation for the real work of life, viz. farming


Another well-known Icelandic historian, Gsli gst Gunnlaugsson, presents a

very similar picture of the typical life course of people in the 19th century in
his book Family and Household.[77] Both these scholars base their studies on
highly reliable demographic research that provides us with much significant
information about how people lived at this time. They thus assert that those
who were unable to follow this conventional life course had either to accept
remaining in service throughout their lives, making a verbal contract annually
with the head of a household, or abandon the rural community entirely and
attempt to establish themselves in the fishing communities along the coasts,
as happened to around ten percent of the population of Iceland in the middle
years of the 19th century. In other words, the historians chosen research
method leads them to the conclusion that there was little room for
variation within the farming community for able people to choose their own
directions in life and few opportunities for specialization.

By directing the spotlight on the life and career of a single, specified

individual, Halldr Jnsson of Midalsgrf, I came to realize how multifaceted
and complex the life of people in his position could be. Within the
circumscribed framework of the type of society described by Hlfdanarson
and Gunnlaugsson, there was in fact considerably greater scope for initiative
and specialization than the census averages would have us believe. Once we
start going into peoples actual personal testimony, like that found in many
diaries, the picture usually presented of rural society in the 19th century
changes. It is tempting then to draw the conclusion from this comparison, as
many microhistorians in fact do, that these two research methods cannot exist
in isolation and without each others support, and it is desirable to set them
side by side and use them to complement each other in so far as this is
possible. On this I shall have more to say later in this article, as I have in recent
years expressed deep reservations about the necessity for this interplay
between the small research units and the larger context.

Of this kind of research, Giovanni Levi writes: Phenomena previously

considered to be sufficiently described and understood assume completely
new meanings by altering the scale of observation. It is then possible to use
these results to draw far wider generalizations although the initial observations
were made within relatively narrow dimensions and as experiments rather than
examples.[78] Here Levi is touching on the question of how small units
connect with and fit into larger wholes, and as previously noted many
microhistorians have turned the identification of such connections into one of
the chief identifying features of their method: microhistorical research would
be of little value if it was not used to shed light on the greater wholes of

A second distinguishing feature of microhistory concerns the position of the

individual in the research. The essential point here is the correlation between
the external conditions that circumscribe his life and the inner life of the
person in question. Individuals in all societies live by particular rules and laws
and are expected to go along with prespecified ideas on behavior that
tradition has shaped from generation to generation. But inside every
individual there are longings and desires that pull in different directions and
each and every one of us perceives his possibilities in different ways, often in
opposition to received traditions and the precepts of society. In other words,
the way society works calls up different responses in each individual and as a
result the paths that people choose for themselves often go directly counter to
the paths they are supposed to take. It is important to provide room for these
conflicting influences in research since they are the key to all changes that
occur in society; without this internal tension society would remain essentially
in a state of statis.

Once again it is worth turning to Alf Ldtke for a particularly insightful way of
viewing the situation of the individual, in his use of the German
word Eigensinn. In everyday German usage this word is used with pejorative
connotations to describe the behavior particularly of demanding or badly-
behaved children willfulness, obstinacy or the like. Ldtke extends this sense,
using the word to refer to the individuals personal interpretation of the mass
of disparate minor details of his life and the construction he puts upon
things.[80] In Icelandic, the word sjlfri(willfulness, autonomy) has a fairly
similar semantic range and the Icelandic historian Lra Magnsardttir has
written on the meaning of this word and how it was used in the 18th
century.[81] The indiscipline and lack of self-restraint of the masses was a
familiar topic for complaint among the better classes in newspapers and
journals in the 18th and 19th centuries.[82] There was much grumbling about
the incorrigibility of the common masses, their refusal to do what they were
told, however much they were reproved and cajoled. In other words, Ldtkes
concept of Eigensinn rests upon the distinction between a pair of oppositions:
normative behavior and actual behavior, the dictates of society that say one
thing and peoples actual conduct that often goes in completely different

Geoff Eley gives an excellent definition of Eigensinn and the way it is used in
his article cited earlier: The key to Ldtkes argument is the concept of
Eigensinn an almost untranslatable combination of self-reliance, self-will,
and self-respect or the act of reappropriating alienated social relations,
particularly at work but also at school, in the street, and in any other contexts
externally determined by structures and processes beyond workers own
immediate control.[83] The central point here is that Eigensinn only in
exceptional cases manifests itself in consciously directed actions in time and
space; it is rather instinctive and involuntary and almost always independent
of the structural institutions of society. The concept thus covers the kind of
human behavior that is often described as meaningless or irrational, i.e. at
variance with prevailing values and received modes of conduct. One thing that
is clear is that this concept as Ldtke uses it is of enormous significance and
that scholars are becoming ever more conscious of these inexplicable strands
in human behavior and that they are much more pervasive than people have
hitherto supposed.

The concept of Eigensinn can be particularly illuminating in the historical

analysis of societies in which centralized authority was comparatively weak, as
was the case in Iceland in the 19th century. In such situations the framework
of society lacked the force and clarity of direction to control and constrain
peoples behavior because mankind is, underneath it all, not such an entirely
rational being as people in an age of increasing scientism like to think. Mankind
often reacts extraordinarily irrationally to the most obvious situations,
behaving according to quite different precepts from those that underlie the
logic of science.

Despite this, the encompassing framework of society remains of profound

importance, as comes out in some recent works of mine into life writing and
memory in Iceland in the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries.[84] The individual in
word is not the same as the individual in deed. Between these two poles lies a
gulf that can never be bridged. For most of the 20th century scholars have
taken as axiomatic that the testimony of individuals when speaking about
their own selves is irredeemably flawed and worthless for work with any kind
of scientific purpose in mind, while acting as if completely different laws
applied to the supposedly objective expression found in public sources of
past events. Considerable energy has been expended on demonstrating that
there is no way of using personal sources without sacrificing all claim to
scholarly standards and principles. In my two books on life writing I work on
the principle that the only way to counter the attitudes of traditional
historiography is to work systematically with the sources and to break them
down into their basic elements. In order to do this, I attempt to classify life
writing into distinct categories on the basis of the motive that appears to have
lain behind the writing of each work. The results of this discussion reveal a
particular trend of development within life writing that provides genuine
illumination of the situation of individuals in modern societies. At the very
least, life writing such as autobiography allows us to observe Ldtkes concept
of Eigensinn at work in peoples daily lives. As a result I feel it is worth going
over the changes that self-expression in Iceland underwent from the 18th
century to the present day, while stressing that what I am dealing with here is
a conjecture based on my research.
The 19th-century Iceland appears to be somewhat anomalous as regards how
people related to memory. As I see it, the collective memory as I have defined
it in my work seems to have been exceptionally weak. As a result of the
geographical conditions and sparsely distributed population, groups found it
difficult to coalesce; people lacked the kinds of bonds that were the
prerequisite for sharing memories and holding them in common. Even the
group best placed to sustain their collective memory, viz. the educated, was
scattered among the ordinary people and absorbed the thought and activities
of the farming community without being able to maintain its earlier links
forged during schooling and education. This weakness of the collective
memory created a vacuum that could only be filled by the other two ways in
which memory manifests itself. Individual memory in particular found much
greater scope for self-expression than in most other parts of Europe.
Alongside this there was a very powerful historical memory, especially in
comparison to its rather weak status in other countries in the 19th century.
The resulting situation allowed individual people more scope to shape their
own memories, buttressed by a historical memory with links directly back to
the culture of ancient Iceland. Each of these types grew stronger and stronger
through the course of the 19th century on the back of the impassioned
arguments of the leaders of the independence movement. Here the ancient
cultural world of Iceland, and above all the material of the family sagas, was
used to create a national historical memory and a national image of what was
felt to be of value and worth cherishing. Despite this strength of the historical
memory, however, the individual and his personal memory held its ground,
because it was individuals that read and passed on the historical memory to
the groups they belonged to and who thus became an important nexus
between history and other individuals. Memory was thus constructed upon
the living experience of individuals, and there was thus no way of avoiding
coming to terms with the historical memory. This perhaps suggests why
autobiography became a more widespread form of self-expression in Iceland
than in most other countries of Europe.

At the heart of Ldtkes concept of Eigensinn lies a sharp dichotomy between

peoples normative behavior and their actual behavior. We see this dichotomy
at play in an excellent example given by Eley concerning the political interest
and awareness of working people:

Such small acts of self-affirmation may not have expressed a consciously

anticapitalist outlook and may well have been innocent of formal political or
trade union concerns. But at a more basic level, this everyday culture in the
factory or the office, in the tenement house and on the street conveyed an
intense political sensibility and militancy. Workers apparent indifference to
organized politics did not mean that they had no idea of an alternative society
or the good life, simply that such aspirations were normally locked in a
private economy of desires. If that was so, moreover, a vital question arises
concerning the manner and circumstances in which the connection to real
politics could be made.


But if there are finite bounds to the sphere of reason in human society, what
consequences does this have? Must we accept that a history that rejects the
primacy of reason in society will inevitably end up either in chaotic
postmodernist description or in an endless enumeration of examples? The
answer is categorical to my mind: the job of history is to identify and
investigate the structure of society, there is no escaping this, but at the same
time it should be seeking ways of deconstructing received explanations of
how this structure is arranged and ordered in peoples lives, how it came into
existence and what effects it has had on peoples ideas about their lives. And
within this exercise it is of central importance to show the scope for
individuality that people have within the structure of their society.
Microhistorians invariably stress that it is not simply a matter of the individual
enjoying a degree of freedom within the formal structures of society, but that
this structure itself is ever-changing and full of internal contradictions that
make it open at both ends. Levi draws the following conclusion: This is truly a
reversal of perspective in that it accentuates the most minute and localised
actions to demonstrate the gaps and spaces which the complex
inconsistencies of all systems leave open.[86]

This conclusion demonstrates and validates the possibilities inherent in this

approach: when the individual is no longer viewed simply as a victim or casualty
of particular circumstances but as a human being with a will and desires to
which he can give expression in a variety of ways, opportunities for advance
open up on all sides. The ways that people select to give expression to their
wills and desires are often of a nature that makes it difficult to investigate and
understand them. But the first step is to accept and allow for the fact that an
individuals actions and desires do not go along any prescribed and delimited
route: they are ever-changing and incalculable.

This leads us on to the third point, which centers on historians attempts to

decipher the informal semiotic system that exists independent of the
institutions of society. To resolve such questions some microhistorians have
turned to the hermeneutic methods of anthropology and ethnology. Perhaps
the most influential such approach is that of the American anthropologist
Clifford Geertz.[87] Geertz stresses that it is pointless constructing theories
based on supposed laws of human behavior, since human life is full of
symbols that serve no purpose within any particular theory and come into
force only when given a specific meaning through teleological interpretation
in daily life. Geertz names his method thick description, described by
Giovanni Levi as follows:

Rather than starting with a series of observations and attempting to impose

one law-like theory on them, this perspective starts from a set of signifying
signs and tries to fit them into an intelligible structure. Thick description
therefore serves to record in written form a series of signifying events or facts
which would otherwise be evanescent, but which can be interpreted by being
inserted in context, that is to say, in the flow of social discourse. This approach
succeeds in using microscopic analysis of the most minute events as a means
of arriving at the most far-reaching conclusions.


Without wishing to go any deeper into the methodology of anthropology, the

main methodological difference between anthropology and microhistory can
be said to lie in the fact that the former operates on the assumption that there
are identifiable signs and symbols that have the same meaning in any cultural
society in which they appear.[89] A good example of this is the famous essay
by the American historian Robert Darnton on the Great Cat Massacre in
France.[90] Darnton, who is a close friend of Geertz and under strong
influence from him, takes a well-known story passed down from person to
person over many generations concerning an apprentice, his master and the
latters family. Darnton has no hesitation about attempting to draw
conclusions on the nature of French culture through an analysis of the
symbols in the story. From this he goes on to consider variants of the same
story as it occurs in other countries and compares them with the French
version. In his analysis he works on the assumption that what he is dealing
with are shared symbols and that it is irrelevant where they occur since they
have the same meaning in all places. Darntons methods came in for fierce
criticism and his article became the catalyst for a lively exchange of views on
the substance and nature of historical analysis.[91]

Most microhistorians adopt a rather different approach in their handling of

historical material. They seek to weigh up and interpret the kinds of symbols
and significations that occur everywhere in human societies with reference to
the many-stranded networks of reference that they form within a particular
culture. For this reason, symbols are never the same but always changing.
Individuals and groups construct their interactions on both conflicts and
solidarity and it is the job of history to investigate this process. Giovanni Levi
sums up the methodological difference between anthropology and
microhistory thus:

There is also a danger of losing sight of the socially differentiated nature of

symbolic meanings and consequently of their partly ambiguous quality. This
leads on also to the problem of defining the different forms of functioning of
human rationality within the context of specific situations. Both the amount of
information necessary to organize and define a culture, and the amount of
information necessary for action, are historically mutable and socially variable.
This then, is the problem which needs to be faced since the framework of
public, symbolic structures is an abstraction. For, in the context of differing
social conditions, these symbolic structures produce a fragmented and
differentiated multiplicity of representations; and it is these which should be
the object of our study.


History here is seen in terms of a process of continual change, and this

process, in whatever sphere of human existence it is found, constitutes the
domain of historical research.[93]

A fourth characteristic feature of microhistorical research concerns the

problem of narrative in historical scholarship. One of the first tasks facing the
microhistorian is to establish the network of links that connect different
structural elements of society and go together to make up the whole that
circumscribes the existence of the individual. From here he goes on to
consider the degree of freedom the individual has to act within this whole,
and finally the tensions that exist between different smaller units (events,
phenomena) and that impinge on his life in one way or another. In this way,
the uncertainty each individual has to deal with in his life becomes an
elemenet in the normative systems of society and a direct factor in the

The narrative mode adopted by microhistorians differs from that of traditional

historians in that the researcher often becomes a part of the narrative itself.
There is frank and open discussion of the sources and the techniques used in
formulating and presenting arguments. The historians struggle with the
course of events and its analysis is included in the text as it finally appears
before the reader. In traditional history the material is generally presented in a
way designed to give the reader the impression that the historian is in
absolute control of what he is doing, that he has a panoramic and all-
embracing view of every aspect of the material. The account is shaped by
someone who has complete control over the argumentation, the storyline and
everything else that might conceivably be of any significance, and therefore
constitutes objective reality. Levi points out that microhistorians tend to take
a different approach in presenting their material: In microhistory, in contrast,
the researchers point of view becomes an intrinsic part of the account. The
research process is explicitly described and the limitations of documentary
evidence, the formulation of hypotheses and the lines of thought followed are
no longer hidden away from the eyes of the uninitiated. The reader is involved
in a sort of dialogue and participates in the whole process of constructing the
historical argument.[94] This approach is more or less forced upon
microhistorians, since a large part of their material is of a kind where the
sources have to be recreated (reinterpreted) through new and exacting
techniques of textual analysis, and it is of central importance that the reader
be able to see what was involved in this process of recreation.

The fifth and final distinguishing feature of microhistory that needs to be

mentioned here is the linking of the individual piece of research to greater
wholes, or what we might call contextualization. Giovanni Levi opens his
discussion of this aspect with the following observation: The microhistorical
approach addresses the problem of how we gain access to knowledge of the
past by means of various clues, signs and symptoms. This is a procedure which
takes the particular as its starting point (a particular which is often highly
specific and individual, and would be impossible to describe as a typical case)
and proceeds to identify its meaning in the light of its own specific
context.[95] A feature of all microhistorical research is that the scale is
reduced to the minimal units, a process that allows features to be brought out
that remain blurred in macrohistorical research. The key issue then in such
research is to find ways of linking the material being studied into some
greater whole. This, as I see it, is generally done in two ways.

Firstly, the event or individual (group) has to be linked in with a greater whole
within the framework set up in the research. If, for example, the subject is a
man from the lower classes in some particular village, then it is necessary to
give an account of the other people who had some part in his life, directly or
indirectly. Here this would include the friends and relatives of the person at
the focus of the research, but also and just as importantly members of the
upper classes, landowners or the priest who oversees the spiritual guidance of
the people of the village. In other words, it is necessary to weave together the
many and varied strands that link people to one another and all the factors of
uncertainty inherent in them. This procedure is of course central to the
exercise and can open up insights into important connections and networks
within the community of which the subject is a part.

Secondly, there must be some attempt to integrate the picture that emerges
from such research into a much broader context, to extend it beyond the
village, travel far and wide and show how it sheds light on greater wholes, or
what the American social scientist and historian of society Charles Tilly calls
big structures, large processes, huge comparisons.[96] How this is done, of
course, depends on what the material is and its scope and range.[97] It is
essential to keep firmly in mind that most human activities are closely related
wherever in the world they take place, and though, all else being equal, the
connections between them may not generally be obvious they are enormously
important for the way things hold together overall.[98]In this respect, we need
only consider something like capitalist market economics and how it works:
for example, a failure in fish catches in South America can mean higher prices
for sea produce from the North Atlantic and improved earnings for the people
there. Alf Ldtke categorizes the interplay between the particular and the
greater whole as follows:

Increased attention among historians to individual situations and the

ambivalences and multiple meanings in those situations has its implications
for the nature of


. If ambivalences can be laid bare only by linking together a multitude of

individual observations, or drawing on disparate sources and historical
residua, then it is imperative to examine individual cases and their history.
They provide far more than just local color, highlighting history as a process,
as a plaiting of strands, a mosaic of (inter)actions.


A recurrent interest in how these two aspects interrelate has remained one of
the key features of microhistorical research, though I have personally come
out in open opposition to it elsewhere in what I call the singularization of
history.[100] The great majority of microhistorians take the view that, in the
absence of this linking between small units and large, all we are left with are
accounts and descriptions of unconnected phenomena or events which fail to
rise above the low-level generalization that characterizes individual incidents.

Looked at overall, the most striking feature of microhistorical research is its

emphasis on investigating discrete and very clearly defined areas, using
sources such as court papers to recreate the reactions of the people involved.
Research of this kind supplants the statistical processing of large groups, such
as some particular body of workers or age group, where the task is to show
how a typical representative might conduct himself in particular conditions, at
a certain point in his life or over longer periods. Microhistorians carry out their
research on individuals in the light of an axiomatic premise, that we
experience our lives as a sequence of disparate events from which each of us
has to be constantly selecting and rejecting in line with our own personal
preferences, conduct and opinions. Finally, microhistorians very often seek to
provide a voice for those whose own voices are generally little heard in
historical discussion, that is, people from the lowest rungs of society and those
who for one reason or another have lost out in the daily struggle of everyday
life. The final word on the value of microhistory as a method for historical
research may go to Edward Muir: In making historians sensitive to the
nuances of power and to the changes of voice in documents, microhistory
offers great rewards; it allows scholars to uncover disjunctures between what
those who created documents thought was necessary to record and what the
scholar wants to know, and to indicate gaps between what the educated jurist,
for example, meant when he asked questions and what the bewildered
defendant understood in answering.[101]

6. The Cultural Turn and the Linguistic Turn

In the last two decades of the twentieth century the emphases within history
and most other areas of the humanities started to shift under the influence of
the linguistic turn, followed later by the cultural turn. Scholars began to
pay more attention to cultural dimensions and these began to figure more
prominently in the findings of their research. The ideologies of various grand
narratives rose and fell during the course of the century as the assumptions
that had underpinned scholarship and scientific research crumbled away with
the end of the Cold War. A changed world picture crystallized in the events
that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and this influenced the ways in
which historians looked at the past. It was thus not only the self-image of
individuals that underwent radical changes but also the image the scholarly
world had of its tasks and subject matter.

After the initial step in this new direction, i.e. away from sociological emphases
toward a more culturally based form of research, some social historians,
notably in the USA, went still further and started looking at certain new ideas
that were emanating from France (not for the first time), and in particular to
the work of the philosopher Jacques Derrida and the
poststructuralists.[102] With the emphasis now on culture, the obvious
questions arose of what was it that held culture together, of how the concepts
applied in analyzing peoples actions and behavior had come into being, and
of who stood to gain from the ways in which they were defined. So in the late
the 1980s and early 1990s many scholars started to apply the methods of
deconstruction in their analysis. Poststructuralism became a kind of symbol for
the linguistic turn, which when applied to history and historical thinking
might perhaps be called the textual revolution. This radical change of
emphasis turned on the idea that language was the tool exploited by those in
power to get their messages across and into currency, among other ways
through the definition of concepts. To understand the nature and context of
power, the most promising approach would then be to investigate the
tradition of the discourse that underpinned and sustained power.[103] These
ideas led to major changes in the ideas of many historians and the ways they
approached their sources. Looked at overall, it is fair to say that the
postmodernist condition (or whatever we choose to call the cultural flow of
the present moment) has exerted an enormous influence on historians,
especially those of the younger generation[104] though it is still worth
remembering that the great majority of social historians and other historians
have been happy to turn a blind idea to these ideological upheavals, and
others have striven avowedly to oppose and refute them.[105]

The methods of microhistory received their initial impetus and began to make
headway late in the last century in the atmosphere described above. Though
these ideas had been in the melting pot for more than two decades, it was not
until the 1990s that they made any appreciable advance on a broader front.
Microhistory was one element in the intellectual currents that were stirred up
in history by the cultural turn and moved the emphases of scholars away from
quantitative methods towards qualitative ones.

The development of a microhistorical ideology revolutionized the use of

personal sources. The cultural turn and the changes it brought with it called
for the direct testimony of people from all levels of society and advocated a
historical method that set out consciously to direct the focus on the actual
participants in history. Peoples own experience of the events and phenomena
that had shaped their lives were held to be worth their weight in gold,
particularly if their accounts were preserved in complete and original form.
Such sources provided a tool for analyzing peoples understanding of the
unfolding of life, the workings of the institutions that formed part of their day-
to-day condition, and their relationships with other individuals in their
immediate environments.
The linguistic turn, however, put this concept of the individual as an
independent unit of expression into a state of considerable turmoil. In what
way could the validity of the individuals testimony be justified when his
expression was so bound up with the prevailing systems of language that
there was no possibility of communicating experience of the past that was
built solely on the ideas and feelings of the person involved? Poststructuralists
have attempted to answer this question in a variety of ways, but broadly it can
be said that the methods of microhistory offer an approach to the analysis of
discourse in which meaning is read into discrete accounts of phenomena,
events and people that would otherwise be difficult to discern and investigate.
By examining all the strands of such a discourse in as close detail as possible
microhistorians find themselves in a position to deconstruct courses of events
and ideas that would otherwise remain concealed behind the smokescreen of
the official or public discourse of the grand narrative with its imagined
connection to the truth of the past. This is because microhistorians are
constantly on the look-out for ways to approach their research materials from
some direction other than that offered by the public discourse to provide a
platform for the many varied voices that can always be heard on any subject
and be prepared to grapple with the contradictions and inconsistencies that
echo within the text. The so-called singularization of history that I have been
advocating in recent years is aimed specifically at defining the possibilities
that sources provide scholars to talk about the past in a varied manner
without becoming trapped in the received categories of the grand

The cultural and textual revolutions and the ideas associated with them
provided a powerful incentive for a new application of the methods of
microhistory, and to a certain degree it can be said that microhistory lent itself
well to the precepts of discourse analysis. These methods consisted of a close
examination of the symbols and imagery of the text and attempts to bring out
connections that were not discernible at first sight. It is precisely on such
terms that microhistory can be applied to discourse in the kinds of texts we
find in life writing.

Historians have generally paid little attention to the perceptual qualities of

their source material. Scholars in other areas of the humanities and social
sciences, however, have shown themselves readier to handle them in a variety
of ways. By perceptual what I mean are the emotional affects, i.e.
associations and influences, that individuals come under from their
environment, directly or indirectly, and carry through into the realm of
experience. A distinction can be postulated between the perceptual and
objectified features of sources, and it is this aspect that provides the main
subject of discussion in my book on life writing in Iceland, in particular the
logical and discursive structure of particular categories of sources. It is
possible to speak of photographs, texts or works of art as objects with a
logical structure that it is important to identify and recognize, but it is equally
possible to speak of these things as esthetic artifacts that call for the active
involvement of peoples emotional responses. In the latter case it is necessary
to apply all the various organs of sense and perception if one is to bring out
the emotional affects that the work demands or has to offer. The approach,
then, of whoever handles the source must be personal and in many instances
autobiographical. A photograph, say, of a group of people on the shore may
potentially call up memories that evoke a redolence of the sea in peoples
senses and influence the way in which they perceive and interpret the picture.
The evaluation of the contents and effect of the material is largely bound up
with the personal experience of the user in question. The interpretation of any
source or piece of material can be divided between two aspects: on the one
hand there is the affect or emotional response that works primarily on a sense
level within each individual, though with unequal power from time to time and
from person to person; on the other, this interpretation is shaped
by experience that is constrained and bound within language and as a result
amenable to the discursive methods of science. There is often an attempt to
objectify the affective emotional response by transforming it into the form
of thought, which is then mediated as experience in different activities and
functions of human life. But the emotional responses can also remain outside
of and separate from language, while still having an influence on the reality
associated with them. This is the perceptual world that scholars have started
to work with in their research in recent years.

The crucial point to my mind here is the poststructuralists avowed declaration

that no single person can be allowed to monopolize and control the
discourse, however powerful he or she may be. The meanings are so many
and varied and the possible interpretations so astronomically diverse that it is
futile to try to read the symbols and imagery through the thick-lensed glasses
of the advocates of positivism who wish to endow every symbol with one and
only one meaning. Any ideas that symbols and images can reveal reliable
information about the external reality that they are mirror images of life, as it
was I reject utterly. As I see it, the concept of perceptual mediation has the
potential to open up for many scholars a means of bringing out the multiple
ambiguities within texts vis--vis their readers and their dynamic
understanding of them. They need to use their sensory perceptions in their
attempts to grasp meanings that are perhaps concealed from the eyes, ears
and touch of others who engage with the material.

It is along the lines of these new ways of thinking that I believe

microhistorians need to be working if they are to make full use of the
opportunities history has to offer, opportunities inherent in new ideas about
the interaction between culture and language at the present moment.
Microhistorians now face the challenge of adapting their methods to the
changes described above with the aim of making them best able to contribute
to our understanding of the past and the ways we have of dealing with the
present. This is something it seems to me many microhistorians have shied
away from, but which I hope to be able to return to for detailed discussion at
some point in the future.

[1] I have discussed this matter elsewhere, e.g. in my article Kynjasgur 19.
og 20. ld? Hlutverkaskipan slensku samflagi [Modern Fairy Tales of the
19th and 20th Centuries? Role division in Icelandic society], Saga 35 (1997),
pp. 137-77. This article highlights the difference between the institutional view
of schooling and education in the 20th century and an approach that puts
ordinary individuals at the center of the debate and examines their links with
schools. See also Sigurur Gylfi Magnsson, Siferilegar fyrirmyndir 19.
ld [Moral Models in the 19th Century], N saga 7 (1995), pp. 57-72.

[2] Heimir Thorleifsson, Saga slenskrar togaratgerar fram til 1917 [History
of the Icelandic Trawler Fisheries up to 1917], Sagnfrirannsknir 3
(Reykjavk, 1974).

[3] On the development of social history in the USA, see Alice Kessler-
Harris, Social History, The New American History (Tempel University, 1990). A
fair amount has been said and written on the state and position of social
history at different times: see, for example, Peter N. Stearns, Toward a Wider
Vision: Trends in Social History, in Michael Kammen, ed., The Past Before Us:
Contemporary Historical Writing in the United States (Ithaca, 1980), pp. 205-
30; Peter N. Stearns, Social History and History: a Progress Report, Journal of
Social History 19 (Winter 1985), pp. 319-34; and Konrad H. Jarausch, German
Social History American Style, Journal of Social History 19 (Winter 1985), pp.
349-59. The American historical journal, the Journal of Social History, has run a
regular section entitled Social History Update publishing thought-provoking
articles on various branches of social history: see for example Lynne M. Adrian,
Social History Update: an American Studies Contribution to Social
History, Journal of Social History 23 (Summer 1990), pp. 875-85; and Peter N.
Stearns, Social History Update: Encountering Postmodernism, Journal of
Social History 24 (Winter 1990), pp. 449-52. As a highly illuminating sidelight
on the subject, the Journal of Social History devoted a special issue to the
current state of social history on the occasion of its tenth anniversary of
publication: see Journal of Social History: 10th Anniversary Issue: Social History
Today ... and Tomorrow? (Winter 1976). This volume includes contributions
from a number of well-known international scholars covering the situations
within their own countries, at a time when the discipline may be said to have
emerged from its childhood into full maturity. See also my article on the broad
lines of development of social history over the last 40 years, particularly
through the medium of what has been written about it in the pages of
the Journal of Social History: Sigurur Gylfi Magnsson, Social History as
Sites of Memory? The Institutionalization of History: Microhistory and the
Grand Narrative, Journal of Social History (Spring 2006), pp. 891-913, as well
as other articles in the same volume discussing the future of social history
around the world.

[4] Of the large number of works dealing with these developments, a couple
examples must suffice. First, there is a kind of collection of overview articles on
the position and role of social history in the world: Olivier Zunz, ed., Reliving
the Past: the Worlds of Social History (Chapel Hill, 1985); within this volume,
see particularly the article by Charles Tilly, Retrieving European Lives, pp. 11-
52. Second, for the history of the Annales movement, see Peter Burke, The
French Historical Revolution: The Annales School, 1929-89 (Cambridge, 1990).
Finally, on the influence of the Annalistes, see Franqois Furet, Beyond
the Annales, Journal of Modern History 55 (1983), pp. 389-410.

[5] E. P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1963).
See also the collection of articles including a number of his most important
works, E. P. Thompson, Customs in Common: Studies in Traditional Popular
Culture (New York, 1991).
[6] Jim Sharpe, History from Below, in Peter Burke, ed., New Perspectives on
Historical Writing (University Park, PA, 1991), p. 26.
[7] Jim Sharpe, History from Below, p. 32.

[8] It should be said that, although history from below has never taken off as
a distinct academic discipline within universities in the English-speaking world,
it has flourished among interested amateurs working on local history and
other localized studies of working-class life and culture. Historical research of
this kind has always stood on somewhat shaky scholarly grounds but can be
invaluable to historians in many ways in the conduct of their own research. In
Iceland these studies tend to be classified as national heritage or popular
learning. For a discussion of this type of historiography and how it can be of
assistance to professional historians, see my book, Sigurur Gylfi
Magnsson, Menntun, st og sorg: einsgurannskn slensku
sveitasamflagi 19. og 20. aldar [Education, Love and Grief: Microhistorical
Research into Icelandic Rural Society in the 19th and 20th Centuries],
Sagnfrirannsknir 13 (Reykjavk, 1997), pp. 24-6.

[9] The concept of mentalit is discussed by Robert Darnton in Intellectual

and Cultural History, in Michael Kammen, ed., The Past Before Us:
Contemporary Historical Writing in the United States (Ithaca, 1980), p. 346.
See also James A. Henretta, Families and Farms: Mentalit in Pre-Industrial
America, William and Mary Quarterly 35 (1978), pp. 3-32; ibid., Social History
as Lived and Written, American Historical Review 84 (1979), pp. 1293-322;
Stuart Clark, French Historians and Early Modern Popular Culture, Past and
Present 100 (1983), pp. 62-99; Patrick H. Hutton, The History of Mentalities:
the New Map of Cultural History, History and Theory 20 (1981), pp. 237-59;
Peter Burke, Strengths and Weaknesses of the History of Mentalities, History
of European Ideas 7 (1986), pp. 439-51; and Alan Macfarlane, History,
Anthropology, and the Study of Communities, Social History 3 (1977-8), pp.

[10] Mary Lindemann, Mentalities, in Peter N. Stearns, ed., Encyclopedia of

Social History (New York, 1994), p. 470.
[11] For a detailed discussion of this, see my article Social History as Sites of
Memory? The Institutionalization of History: Microhistory and the Grand
Narrative, Journal of Social History (Spring 2006).

[12] Geoff Eley, Labor History, Social History, Alltagsgeschichte: Experience,

Culture, and the Politics of the Everyday. A New Direction for German Social
History? Journal of Modern History 61 (June 1989), p. 312.

[13] Theodore Zeldin, Social History and Total History, Journal of Social
History, 10th Anniversary Issue: Social History Today and Tomorrow? 10
(Winter 1976), pp. ###-##.

[14] Theodore Zeldin, Social History and Total History, p. 243.

[15] Theodore Zeldin, Social History and Total History, p. 243.

[16] Theodore Zeldin, Social History and Total History, p. 244.

[17] Harold Perkin, Social History in Britain, Journal of Social History, 10th
Anniversary Issue: Social History Today and Tomorrow? 10 (Winter 1976),
pp. 129-43; Hartmut Kaelble, Social Stratification in Germany in the 19th and
20th Centuries: A Survey of Research since 1945, ibid., pp. 144-65; Michelle
Perrot, The Strength and Weakness of French Social History, ibid., pp. 166-

[18] Michelle Perrot, The Strength and Weakness, p. 169.

[19] Elizabeth H. Pleck, Two Worlds in One: Work and Family, ibid., pp. 178-
95; Gilbert Shapiro, Prospects for a Scientific Social History: 1976, ibid., pp.
196-204; Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Political
Crisis of Social History: A Marxian Perspective, ibid., pp. 205-20.

[20] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Political Crisis of

Social History, p. 205.

[21] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Political Crisis of

Social History, p. 208.

[22] Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene D. Genovese, The Political Crisis of

Social History, p. 215.

[23] Michelle Perrot, The Strength and Weakness, p. 171.

[24] Richard T. Vann, The Rhetoric of Social History, ibid., p. 232

[25] Peter N. Stearns, Some Comments on Social History, Journal of Social

History1 (1967), pp. 3-6.

[26] Peter N. Stearns, Coming of Age, p. 246.

[27] Peter N. Stearns, Coming of Age, p. 246.

[28] Peter N. Stearns, Coming of Age, p. 252.

[29] Peter N. Stearns, Coming of Age, p. 252-3.

[30] Peter N. Stearns, Coming of Age, p. 253.

[31] Peter N. Stearns, Towards a Wider Vision: Trends in Social History, in

Michael Kammen, ed., The Past Before Us: Contemporary Historical Writing in
the United States (Ithaca, 1980), pp. 205-30.
[32] Peter N. Stearns, Towards a Wider Vision, pp. 220-1.

[33] Peter N. Stearns, Towards a Wider Vision, p. 223.

[34] Peter N. Stearns, Towards a Wider Vision, p. 226.

[35] Of the large amount written on this subject, see for example Clifford
Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York, 1973); and
Natalie Zemon Davis, Anthropology and History in the 1980s: The Possibilities
of the Past, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 12 (Autumn 1981), pp. 267-75.

[36] Peter N. Stearns, Social History and History: A Progress Report, Journal
of Social History 19 (Winter 1985), pp. 319-34. The same volume also contains
two articles dealing specifically with developments in social history outside
America: Micheal Adas, Social History and the Revolution in African and Asian
Historiography, ibid., pp. 335-48; and Konrad H. Jarausch, German Social
History American Style, ibid., pp. 349-59. The same year also saw the
publication of an important volume providing a synopsis of the main strands
of sociohistorical research in various different countries: Oliver Zunz,
ed., Reliving the Past: The Worlds of Social History (Chapel Hill, 1985).

[37] Peter N. Stearns, Social History and History: A Progress Report, p. 319.

[38] Peter N. Stearns, Social History and History: A Progress Report, p. 319.

[39] Peter N. Stearns, Social History and History: A Progress Report, p. 322.

[40] Peter N. Stearns, Social History and History: A Progress Report, p. 323.

[41] Peter N. Stearns, Social History and History: A Progress Report, p. 327.

[42] Peter N. Stearns, Social History and History: A Progress Report, p. 328.

[43] The question of synthesis in history generated a lively debate. Among the
most important contributions was Thomas A. Bender, Wholes and Parts: the
Need for Synthesis in American History, Journal of American History 73 (June
1986), pp. 120-35. For reactions to Benders paper, see David Thelen, Nell Irvin
Painter, Richard Wightman Fox, Roy Rosenzweig and Thomas Bender, A
Round Table: Synthesis in American History, Journal of American History 74
(June 1987), pp. 107-30; and Eric H. Monkkonen, The Dangers of
Synthesis, American Historical Review 91 (December 1986), pp. 1146-57. See
also Thomas Bender, Venturesome and Cautious: American History in the
1990s, Journal of American History 81 (December 1994), pp. 992-1003; and
George M. Fredrickson, Commentary on Thomas Benders Call for Synthesis
in American History, in Gnther Lenz, Harmut Keil, and Sabine Brck-Sallah,
eds., Reconstructing American Literary and Historical Studies (New York,
1990), pp. 74-81.

[44] See Peter N. Stearns, Social History Update: Sociology of

Emotion, Journal of Social History 22 (Spring 1989), pp. 592-99; David B.
Grusky and Ivan K. Fukomoto, Social History Update: A Sociological Approach
to Historical Social Mobility, Journal of Social History 23 (Fall 1989), pp. 221-
32; Eva Morawska, Social History Update: Sociology and Historical
Matters, Journal of Social History 23 (Winter 1989), pp. 439-44; Lynne M.
Adrian, Social History Update: An American Contribution to Social
History, Journal of Social History 23 (Summer 1990), pp. 873-85; David W.
Miller, Social History Update: Spatial Analysis and Social History, Journal of
Social History 24 (Fall 1990), pp. 213-20; Michael Grossberg, Social History
Update: Fighting Faiths and Challenges of Legal History, Journal of Social
History 25 (Fall 1991), pp. 191-201; Robert L. Paquette, Social History Update:
Slave Resistance and Social History, Journal of Social History 24 (Spring 1989),
pp. 681-85.

[45] Peter N. Stearns, Social History Update: Encountering

Postmodernism, Journal of Social History 24 (Winter 1990), pp. 449-52.

[46] Joseph Kelly and Timothy Kelly, Social History Update: Searching the
Dark Alley: New Historicism and Social History, Journal of Social History 25
(Spring 1992), pp. 677-94.

[47] Ellen Somekawa and Elizabeth Smith, Theorizing the Writing of History or
I Cant Think Why It Should Be So Dull, For A Great Deal Of It Must Be
Invention, Journal of Social History 22 (Fall 1988), pp. 149-61. I should admit
here that there may have been other articles from the JSH around this time
that I may have missed in which postmodernism was taken for consideration.

[48] Peter N. Stearns, Social History Update: Encountering Postmodernism, p.


[49] Peter N. Stearns, Social History Update: Encountering Postmodernism, p.


[50] Peter N. Stearns, Social History Update: Encountering Postmodernism, p.


[51] Peter N. Stearns, Social History Update: Encountering Postmodernism, p.


[52] Joseph Kelly and Timothy Kelly, Social History Update: Searching the
Dark Alley, p. 688.

[53] Geoff Eley, Labor History, Social History, Alltagsgeschichte, pp. 312-3.
See also the collection of excellent essays on Alltagsgeschichte and its
development in Germany in Alf Ldtke, ed., The History of Everyday Life:
Reconstructing Historical Experiences and Ways of Life, trans. William Templer
(Princeton, New Jersey, 1995).

[54] Geoff Eley, Labor History, Social History, Alltagsgeschichte, p. 313.

[55] Geoff Eley, Labor History, Social History, Alltagsgeschichte, p. 298.

[56] Geoff Eley, Labor History, Social History, Alltagsgeschichte, p. 316.

[57] Geoff Eley, Labor History, Social History, Alltagsgeschichte, p. 317.

Among the best-known works produced in this spirit are Hans Medick and
David Warren Sabean, eds., Interest and Emotions: Essays on the Study of
Family and Kinship(Cambridge, 1984); David Warren Sabean, Power in the
Blood: Popular Culture and Village Discourse in Early Modern
Germany (Cambridge, 1984); and Hans Medick, Missionaries in the
Rowboat? Ethnological Ways of Knowing as a Challenge to Social History, in
Alf Ldtke, ed., The History of Everyday Life: Reconstructing Historical
Experiences and Ways of Life, trans. William Templer (Princeton, New Jersey,

[58] Geoff Eley, Labor History, Social History, Alltagsgeschichte, p. 317.

[59] Alf Ldtke, The Historiography of Everyday Life: the Personal and the
Political, in Raphael Samuel and Gareth Stedman Jones, eds., Culture,
Ideology and Politics (London, 1983), p. 39.
[60] William Sheridan Allen, The Nazi Seizure of Power: the Experience of a
Single German Town 1922-1945, revised ed. (New York, 1984), pp. xii-xiii. This
was among the first studies to treat the Nazi period in the way described and
the fact that its author was working in America at the time may well have been
an important factor in this. However, Allens chosen approach also built upon
an older tradition of local history, a tradition with native German roots but
employing rather different techniques from most local historians of the time.

[61] William Sheridan Allen, The Nazi Seizure of Power, pp. xiii-xiv. As
described in the foreword to the second edition, shortly after the books
translation into German the German magazine Der Spiegel lifted the veil of
secrecy that rested over the name of the town and the principal informants.
This opens up a interesting historical problem concerning the handling of
personal sources, which often contain sensitive information. This problem
deserves fuller consideration at some later time.

[62] This tendency has been a besetting problem of much Icelandic research
we are presented with accounts of some particular aspect of peoples
everyday conduct or some unusual situation, but without any attempt to place
it within a wider context. For example, this, it seems to me, vitiates many
potentially interesting articles published in the journal N saga (New History),
e.g. in the 1993 and 1996 issues: we find excellent material often poorly
handled, and this must present the editors of the journal with serious cause
for concern. Whichever way we turn we get the same picture historians from
below who appear to lack all methodological interest when attempting to
come to terms with their material. The blame cannot be directed solely at the
contributors and editors of N saga; the problem in fact goes much deeper
and is down to the lack of general discussion of methodology within history
from below. N saga is singled out for mention here since it was originally
founded with the express aim of promulgating and publicizing new currents
and methods. As I see it, research in Iceland that has been touted as everyday
life history dealing with hygiene, health, housing and other day-to-day
issues has in the overwhelming majority of cases failed to live up to the
name. Icelandic historians dealing with research material of this kind have
generally in reality have much more in common with history from below as we
know it from countries like Britain and the USA.

[63] Alf Ldtke, The Historiography of Everyday Life, p. 41.

[64] Alf Ldtke, The Historiography of Everyday Life, p. 43.

[65] Alf Ldtke, The Historiography of Everyday Life, p. 44.

[66] Dorothee Wierling, The History of Everyday Life and Gender Relations:
On Historical and Historiographical Relationships, in Alf Ldtke, ed., The
History of Everyday Life: Reconstructing Historical Experiences and Ways of
Life, trans. William Templer (Princeton, New Jersey, 1995), p. 151.
[67] Dorothee Wierling, The History of Everyday Life and Gender Relations, p.

[68] Literally something like single history or monohistory. I explain the

thinking behind this translation in my book Menntun, st og Sorg [Education,
Love and Grief], p. 20. The word has been at the center of a certain amount of
discussion in Iceland and I believe has had a considerable influence on the
positive reception the ideology of microhistory has met with there, especially
among general readers. There has even been some muttering in academic
circles about it receiving more attention than it warrants: see for example
Loftur Guttormsson, Strt og smtt sagnfri: Athugasemdir tilefni af
einsguskrifum Sigurar Gylfa Magnsson sagnfrings [Big and Small in
History: Comments Occasioned by the Microhistorical Writings of the
Historian Sigurur Gylfi Magnsson], Skrnir, 175 (Fall 2001), pp. 452-71.

[69] I should make clear here that many German scholars whom I have
included among the historians of everyday life (which indeed they are) take
much of their strength from microhistory and ought perhaps rather to be
classified as such. For this reason I have no hesitation in what follows in
referring to the work and ideas of German historians in my attempt to set out
the main features of microhistory.

[70] Guido Ruggiero, Sex and Gender in Historical Perspective, ed. Edward
Muir and Guido Ruggiero, trans. Margaret A. Gallucci, Mary M. Gallucci and
Carole C. Gallucci (Baltimore, 1990), p. xii.

[71] Giovanni Levi, On Microhistory, in Peter Burke, ed., New Perspectives on

Historical Writing (University Park, PA, 1991), pp. 95-8. The synopsis presented
here is, admittedly, a considerable simplification of what has in fact been a
complicated process. For example, many similarities have been noted between
the work of one of the best-known Annaliste historians and that of the Italian
microhistorians: see Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: the Promised Land
of Error, trans. Barbara Bray (New York, 1979). The French historical tradition of
the Annaliste period was varied and diverse, despite the centralizing influence
of Fernard Braudel, who directed the movements ideology with a firm hand
over the course of several decades and remained of incalculable importance
to its development on into the 1970s: see Peter Burke, The French Historical
Revolution, pp. 32-64. The third generation of Annalistes, to which Le Roy
Ladurie belonged, diverged in significant respects from the methods of their
predecessors as a result of new influences from various directions, making it
increasingly problematic to speak of a single French historical tradition as time
goes on.

[72] Giovanni Levi, On Microhistory, p. 95.

[73] Alf Ldtke, Introduction: What is the History of Everyday Life and Who
are its Practitioners? in Alf Ldtke, ed., The History of Everyday Life:
Reconstructing Historical Experiences and Ways of Life, trans. William Templer
(Princeton, New Jersey, 1995), p. 16.

[74] Alf Ldtke, Introduction, p. 16.

[75] Sigurur Gylfi Magnsson, Jeg er 479 dgum ngri en Nilli. Dagbkur
og daglegt lf Halldrs Jnssonar fr Midalsgrf [I am 479 days younger
than Nilli. The Diaries and Everyday Life of Halldr Jnsson of
Midalsgrf], Skrnir 169 (Fall 1995), pp. 309-47.

[76] Gumundur Hlfdanarson, slensk jflagsrun 19. aldar [The

Development of Icelandic Society in the 19th Century], in Gumundur
Hlfdanarson and Svanur Kristjnsson, eds., slensk jflagsrun 1880-
1990: Ritgerir [The Development of Icelandic Society 1880-1990: Essays],
(Reykjavk, 1993), p. 18 (translated).
[77] Gsli gst Gunnlaugsson, Family and Household in Iceland 1801-1930:
Studies in the Relationship Between Demographic and Socio-economic
Development, Social Legislation and Family and Household
Structures (Uppsala, 1988), p. 63.
[78] Giovanni Levi, On Microhistory, p. 98.

[79] In this connection it is worth mentioning an article by Gumundur

Hlfdanarson in the history journal Saga in 1993 which seems to exhibit
undeniable indirect links with microhistory. In this article he takes a single,
specific court case from the most easterly part of Rangrvallassla in the
southern plains of Iceland, one incident in a dispute between the sheriff and
local farmers, and shows how it sheds light on highly complex and
multifaceted changes in the international mental world of the 19th century:
see Gumundur Hlfdanarson, Kemur sslumanni [a] nokku vi...? Um
run rkisvalds slandi 19. ld [Is it any business of the sheriff? On the
development of state authority in Iceland in the 19th century], Saga 31 (1993),
pp. 7-31.

[80] Eigensinn is a recurrent theme in Ldtkes research: see for example the
entire introduction to his book The History of Everyday Life and also his article
in the same volume What Happened to the Fiery Red Glow? Workers
Experiences and German Fascism, pp. 198-251. See also his article,
Organizational Order or Eigensinn? Workers Privacy and Workers Politics in
Imperial Germany, in Sean Wilentz, ed., Rites of Power: Symbolism, Ritual,
and Politics Since the Middle Ages (Philadelphia, 1985), pp. 303-33.
[81] Lra Magnsardttir, slendingar 18. ld: um veraldlegar hliar
mannlfsins [Icelanders in the 18th century: on the secular faces of human
existence], N saga 6 (1993), pp. 70-81.

[82] Sigurur Gylfi Magnsson, Alumenning slandi, 1850-1940

[Popular Culture in Iceland, 1850-1940], in Gumundur Hlfdanarson og
Svanur Kristjnsson, eds., slensk jflagsrun 1880-1990: Ritgerir [The
Development of Icelandic Society 1880-1990: Essays], (Reykjavk, 1993), pp.

[83] Geoff Eley, Labor History, Social History, Alltagsgeschichte, p. 323.

[84] Sigurur Gylfi Magnsson, Fortardraumar: Sjlfsbkmenntir

slandi [Dreams of Things Past: Life Writing in Iceland], guest ed. Gumundur
Hlfdanarson, Snisbk slenskrar alumenningar 9 [Anthology of Icelandic
Popular Culture, 9], (Reykjavk: Hsklatgfan in collaboration with the
Center for Microhistorical Research, 2004); ibid., Sjlfssgur: minni, minningar
og saga [Metastories: Memory, Recollection, and History], guest ed., Soffa
Auur Birgisdttir, Snisbk slenskrar alumenningar 11 [Anthology of
Icelandic Popular Culture, 11], (Reykjavk: Hsklatgfan in collaboration with
the Center for Microhistorical Research, 2005).

[85] Geoff Eley, Labor History, Social History, Alltagsgeschichte, pp. 323-4.

[86] Giovanni Levi, On Microhistory, p. 107.

[87] Clifford Geertz, Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of

Culture, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973), pp. 3-30. It needs to
be stated clearly that the account given here constitutes a considerable
simplification of the methods of anthropologists such as Geertz. The methods
used by anthropologists vary and are often complex and used by different
people in different ways, making any exposition in a short text such as this
unsatisfactory or impossible.

[88] Giovanni Levi, On Microhistory, p. 98.

[89] In 1981 the Journal of Interdisciplinary History devoted a special issue to

the cross-fertilization between anthropology and history under the title
Anthropology and History in the 1980s (Journal of Interdisciplinary
History 12, Autumn 1981). See in particular Bernard S. Cohen, Toward a
Rapprochement, pp. 227-52; John W. Adams, Consensus, Community, and
Exoticism, pp. 253-65; Natalie Z. Davis, The Possibilities of the Past, pp. 267-
75; and Carlo Ginzburg, A Comment, pp. 277-8.

[90] Robert Darnton, Workers Revolt: the Great Cat Massacre of the Rue
Saint-Sverin, The Great Cat Massacre and Other Episodes in French Cultural
History(New York, 1984), pp. 75-104.

[91] See for example Harold Mah, Surpressing the Text: the Metaphysics of
Ethnographic History in Darntons Great Cat Massacre, History Workshop
Journal 31 (Spring 1991), pp. 1-20; James Fernandez, Historians Tell Tales: of
Cartesian Cats and Gallic Cockfights, Journal of Modern History 60 (March
1988), pp. 113-27; Dominick LaCapra, Chartier, Darnton, and the Great
Symbol Massacre, Journal of Modern History 60 (March 1988), pp. 95-112;
Roger Chartier, Text, Symbols, and Frenchness, Journal of Modern History 57
(1985), pp. 682-95; and Robert Darnton, The Symbolic Element in
History, Journal of Modern History 58 (1986), pp. 218-34.

[92] Giovanni Levi, On Microhistory, pp. 103.

[93] On this, see Eve Rosenhaft in her overview article, History, Anthropology,
and the Study of Everyday Life, Comparative Studies in Society and History 29
(1987), pp. 99-105.

[94] Giovanni Levi, On Microhistory, p. 106. The Icelandic historian Gunnar

Karlsson discusses similar ideas, i.e. the significance of the discourse between
the past (the sources), the historian and the reader, in an article for a British
journal: see Gunnar Karlsson, Reader-Relativism in History, Rethinking
History 1 (1997), pp. 151-63.

[95] Giovanni Levi, On Microhistory, p. 106.

[96] Charles Tilly, Big Structures, Large Processes, Huge Comparisons (New
York, 1984).

[97] See for example the attempt to connect the history of certain individuals
into larger wholes in my book Menntun, st og Sorg [Education, Love and

[98] On this, see Dorothee Wierling, The History of Everyday Life and Gender
Relations, p. 150.

[99] Alf Ldtke, Introduction, p. 21.

[100] Sigurur Gylfi Magnsson, The Singularization of History: Social

History and Microhistory Within the Postmodern State of Knowledge, Journal
of Social History36 (Spring 2003), pp. 701-35.
[101] Edward Muir, Microhistory, The Encyclopedia of Social History, p. 476.

[102] For an excellent discussion of poststructuralist influences on ideas within

the humanities, see Patrick Fuery and Nick Mansfield, Cultural Studies and the
New Humanities: Concepts and Controversies (Melbourne, 1997).

[103] Alun Munslow, Deconstructing History (London, 1997), pp. 25-35.

[104] The influences of postmodernism on the thought and working practices

of historians in recent years are discussed in, for example, Keith Jenkins,
ed., The Postmodern History Reader (London, 1997); Hans Bertens, The Idea of
the Postmodern (London, 1995); David Harvey, The Condition of
Postmodernity: an Enquiry into the Origins of Cultural Change (London, 1990);
Steven Connor, Postmodernist Culture: an Introduction to Theories of the
Contemporary, 2nd. ed. (London, 1997); Keith Jenkins, On What is History?:
from Carr and Elton to Rorty and White (London, 1995); Hayden White,
Metahistory: the Historical Imagination in Nineteenth-Century
Europe (Baltimore, 1973); Keith Jenkins, Re-thinking History(London, 1991).
[105] See for example Arthur Marwick, Two Approaches to Historical Study:
the Metaphysical (Including Postmodernism) and the Historical, Journal of
Contemporary History 30 (January 1995), pp. 5-36. Marwicks strictures were
answered by Hayden White in the following issue of the same journal: Hayden
White, Response to Arthur Marwick, Journal of Contemporary History 30
(April 1995), pp. 233-46. There has been a lively debate on postmodernism
among Icelandic historians: see particularly Sigrn Sigurardttir, Tilbrigi vi
fort: um einsgu og hi pstmdernska stand, [Variations on the past: on
microhistory and the postmodernist condition], Tmarit Mls og
menningar 60:3 (1999), pp. 12-26; and Dav lafsson, Frin minni: einsaga,
pstmdernismi og slensk sagnfri, [Smaller studies: microhistory,
postmodernism and Icelandic history], pp. 55-99. The Fall 2001 issue of the
journal Skrnir contains an article by Loftur Guttormsson, professor of history
at the University of Iceland, that displays a marked distaste for the kinds of
ideas associated with postmodernism and is sharply critical of microhistorical
research in general and of my writings in particular: see Smtt og strt
sagnfri, [Big and Small in History], pp. 452-471. My response, defending
the new experimentation within scholarship, appears in two articles in the
same journal: Fanggsla vanans, [Protective custody of the tradition], pp.
371-400; and A stga tvisvar sama strauminn, [Stepping twice into the
same stream], pp. 127-58.