Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, Social History - Cultural History - Alltagsgeschichte - Microhistory: In-Between Methodologies and Conceptual Frameworks

13 January 2013

1. Traditional History and Social History

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 didn’t 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 book’s 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 1990s.

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 mentalité. 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 people’s 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 élites, 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 women’s 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 journal’s 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 Zeldin’s 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 Zeldin’s 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. Zeldin’s 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 society:

      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.


Perrot’s 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 Kaelble’s 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 composition.[19]

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 artist’s 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 people’s 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 account.

“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 Stearns’s 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. Stearns’s 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 women’s 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 discipline.

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. Stearns’s 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 each.”[28]

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 Stearns’s 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 expansion–extraordinarily rapid during recent years–of 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 rarely–by a few Marxists, a few Braudelians, perhaps a handful of modernization theorists–seen 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 Stearns’s 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 Stearns’s 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 writing:

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 Stearns’s 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 Stearns’s 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 impetus.

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 Smith’s 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 Smith’s 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 history.”[48]

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 Stearns’s 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. Stearns’s 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 society’s shared experience, and the society’s 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 discipline’s 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 history.

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 people’s 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 Lüdtke 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 Lüdtke 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 research:

      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 Minnesota.


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 people’s 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 people’s 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 Lüdtke 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. Lüdtke 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 people’s political consciousness. Such research almost always limits itself to investigating these people’s 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. Lüdtke 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 Lüdtke 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 people’s 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 them.

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 individual’s 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 people’s lives, and on to people’s individual experience of their own surroundings. The German historian Alf Lüdtke 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. Lüdtke 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 impositions


      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 people’s 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 farmer’s son, Halldór Jónsson of Miðdalsgröf in Strandasýsla in the northwest of Iceland, material I have used in a number of studies in recent years. Halldór, 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 people’s 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 man’s life and considered utterly natural – and is entirely in keeping with the findings of most research into historical demography. The Icelandic historian, Guðmundur Hálfdanarson, professor at the Department of History at the University of Iceland, describes the situation thus in a book called Íslensk þjóðfélagsþróun:

      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 people’s age and development. To take a comparison from nature, each individual’s 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 independently.


Another well-known Icelandic historian, Gísli Ágúst 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, Halldór Jónsson of Miðdalsgröf, 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 Hálfdanarson 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 people’s 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 other’s 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 society.[79]

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 Lüdtke 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. Lüdtke extends this sense, using the word to refer to the individual’s personal interpretation of the mass of disparate minor details of his life and the construction he puts upon things.[80] In Icelandic, the word sjálfræði (willfulness, autonomy) has a fairly similar semantic range and the Icelandic historian Lára Magnúsardóttir 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, Lüdtke’s 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 people’s actual conduct that often goes in completely different directions.

Geoff Eley gives an excellent definition of Eigensinn and the way it is used in his article cited earlier: “The key to Lüdtke’s 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 Lüdtke 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 people’s 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 Lüdtke’s concept of Eigensinn at work in people’s 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 Lüdtke’s concept of Eigensinn lies a sharp dichotomy between people’s 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 people’s lives, how it came into existence and what effects it has had on people’s 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 individual’s 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 latter’s 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. Darnton’s 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 research.

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 historian’s 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 researcher’s 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 Lüdtke 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 people’s 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. People’s 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 people’s 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 individual’s 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 narratives.[106]

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 people’s 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 people’s 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-à-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 “Kynjasögur á 19. og 20. öld? Hlutverkaskipan í íslensku samfélagi” [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 Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, “Siðferðilegar fyrirmyndir á 19. öld” [Moral Models in the 19th Century], Ný saga 7 (1995), pp. 57-72.

[2] Heimir Thorleifsson, Saga íslenskrar togaraútgerðar fram til 1917 [History of the Icelandic Trawler Fisheries up to 1917], Sagnfræðirannsóknir 3 (Reykjavík, 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: Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, “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, Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, Menntun, ást og sorg: einsögurannsókn á íslensku sveitasamfélagi 19. og 20. aldar [Education, Love and Grief: Microhistorical Research into Icelandic Rural Society in the 19th and 20th Centuries], Sagnfræðirannsóknir 13 (Reykjavík, 1997), pp. 24-6.

[9] The concept of mentalité 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: Mentalité 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. 631-52.

[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. 166-77.

[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 History 1 (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 Bender’s 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 Bender’s Call for Synthesis in American History,” in Günther Lenz, Harmut Keil, and Sabine Bröck-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 Can’t 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. 450.

[49] Peter N. Stearns, “Social History Update: Encountering Postmodernism,” p. 450.

[50] Peter N. Stearns, “Social History Update: Encountering Postmodernism,” p. 451.

[51] Peter N. Stearns, “Social History Update: Encountering Postmodernism,” p. 451.

[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 Lüdtke, 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 Lüdtke, ed., The History of Everyday Life: Reconstructing Historical Experiences and Ways of Life, trans. William Templer (Princeton, New Jersey, 1995).

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

[59] Alf Lüdtke, “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, Allen’s 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 book’s 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 people’s 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 Ný 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 Ný saga; the problem in fact goes much deeper and is down to the lack of general discussion of methodology within history from below. Ný 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 Lüdtke, “The Historiography of Everyday Life,” p. 41.

[64] Alf Lüdtke, “The Historiography of Everyday Life,” p. 43.

[65] Alf Lüdtke, “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 Lüdtke, 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. 151.

[68] Literally something like “single history” or “monohistory.” I explain the thinking behind this translation in my book Menntun, Ást 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, “Stórt og smátt í sagnfræði: Athugasemdir í tilefni af einsöguskrifum Sigurðar Gylfa Magnússon sagnfræðings” [Big and Small in History: Comments Occasioned by the Microhistorical Writings of the Historian Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon], Skírnir, 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 movement’s 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 Lüdtke, “Introduction: What is the History of Everyday Life and Who are its Practitioners?” in Alf Lüdtke, ed., The History of Everyday Life: Reconstructing Historical Experiences and Ways of Life, trans. William Templer (Princeton, New Jersey, 1995), p. 16.

[74] Alf Lüdtke, “Introduction,” p. 16.

[75] Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, “„Jeg er 479 dögum ýngri en Nilli.” Dagbækur og daglegt líf Halldórs Jónssonar frá Miðdalsgröf” [“I am 479 days younger than Nilli.” The Diaries and Everyday Life of Halldór Jónsson of Miðdalsgröf], Skírnir 169 (Fall 1995), pp. 309-47.

[76] Guðmundur Hálfdanarson, “Íslensk þjóðfélagsþróun 19. aldar” [The Development of Icelandic Society in the 19th Century], in Guðmundur Hálfdanarson and Svanur Kristjánsson, eds., Íslensk þjóðfélagsþróun 1880-1990: Ritgerðir [The Development of Icelandic Society 1880-1990: Essays], (Reykjavík, 1993), p. 18 (translated).

[77] Gísli Ágúst 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 Guðmundur Hálfdanarson 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 Rangárvallasýsla 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 Guðmundur Hálfdanarson, “„Kemur sýslumanni [það] nokkuð við...?” Um þróun ríkisvalds á Íslandi á 19. öld” [“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 Lüdtke’s 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] Lára Magnúsardóttir, “Íslendingar á 18. öld: um veraldlegar hliðar mannlífsins” [Icelanders in the 18th century: on the secular faces of human existence], Ný saga 6 (1993), pp. 70-81.

[82] Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, “Alþýðumenning á Íslandi, 1850-1940” [Popular Culture in Iceland, 1850-1940], in Guðmundur Hálfdanarson og Svanur Kristjánsson, eds., Íslensk þjóðfélagsþróun 1880-1990: Ritgerðir [The Development of Icelandic Society 1880-1990: Essays], (Reykjavík, 1993), pp. 265-320.

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

[84] Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, Fortíðardraumar: Sjálfsbókmenntir á Íslandi [Dreams of Things Past: Life Writing in Iceland], guest ed. Guðmundur Hálfdanarson, Sýnisbók íslenskrar alþýðumenningar 9 [Anthology of Icelandic Popular Culture, 9], (Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan in collaboration with the Center for Microhistorical Research, 2004); ibid., Sjálfssögur: minni, minningar og saga [Metastories: Memory, Recollection, and History], guest ed., Soffía Auður Birgisdóttir, Sýnisbók íslenskrar alþýðumenningar 11 [Anthology of Icelandic Popular Culture, 11], (Reykjavík: Háskólaútgáfan 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-Séverin,” 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 Darnton’s 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, Ást og Sorg [Education, Love and Grief].

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

[99] Alf Lüdtke, “Introduction,” p. 21.

[100] Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon, “‘The Singularization of History’: Social History and Microhistory Within the Postmodern State of Knowledge,” Journal of Social History 36 (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. Marwick’s 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 Sigrún Sigurðardóttir, “Tilbrigði við fortíð: um einsögu og hið póstmóderníska ástand,” [Variations on the past: on microhistory and the postmodernist condition], Tímarit Máls og menningar 60:3 (1999), pp. 12-26; and Davíð Ólafsson, “Fræðin minni: einsaga, póstmódernismi og íslensk sagnfræði,” [Smaller studies: microhistory, postmodernism and Icelandic history], pp. 55-99. The Fall 2001 issue of the journal Skírnir 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 “Smátt og stórt í sagnfræði,” [Big and Small in History], pp. 452-471. My response, defending the new experimentation within scholarship, appears in two articles in the same journal: “Fanggæsla vanans,” [Protective custody of the tradition], pp. 371-400; and “Að stíga tvisvar í sama strauminn,” [Stepping twice into the same stream], pp. 127-58.