Wednesday, February 19, 2003

Microhistory and Macrohistory-Paul Musgrave, pinchblogging at Josh Claybourns, has an interesting piece on historiography
Language is a powerful tool. At the same time, it's a tremendously dangerous and misleading guide. Consider this paragraph:
Bankers’ cups of joy did not runneth over in the small towns of the 1920s. Their troubles stemmed from the unprecedented low prices for farmers’ produce, which persisted throughout the decade. Farm prices had fallen forty percent in 1920-1921; they never climbed back to wartime heights. With falling prices, loans taken out to expand production by buying new land, new tractors, and new barns and silos grew ever more onerous. The exceptionally stable prices of the 1920s made mortgages worth more in real terms; that is, even as mortgage payments remained the same in dollar terms, what farmers paid could buy a larger “basket” of goods and services. Trapped between high debt and low prices, many farmers went under. As they fell, the balance sheets of many rural banks began to look shaky, and the number of bank failures skyrocketed.
I can't begin to describe to you what the author of that paragraph left out. But I can hint at what he skipped over: the hard look that creeps into a man's eye when he realizes he can't feed his family, the crying softness of a mother returning a son's presents bought on credit, the worried nights of children staring at the ceiling and wondering if they'll be living on the farm they've known all their lives tomorrow, and the way the words "foreclosure," "mortgage," and "gone under" cut at people who daily watch the life their families have known for decades be torn apart by men with green eyeshades and little ledger books. All that, and more, repeated a million times over--that's an agricultural depression. An agricultural depression isn't just a coldly economic calculation of price indices and returns on investments; it's life, and death, and hunger, and submission and revolution all wrapped into one. But the author of that paragraph about deflation and balance sheets didn't share any of that with his readers.
Part of the problem with writing history is that it's traditionally written from a macro perspective-presidents, senators, generals, business leaders, wars and grand geopolitical and economic themes. Part of the movement of the last few decades is to make history look at the micro level as well. Such social history will look at how those grand themes played out on the small scale of everyday life. Such histories also bring women and minorities into the loop, for much of macrohistory (for lack of a better term) was mostly a white male thing until recently. Microhistory also tends to better focus on the humanity of the situation, and thus will often paint a more pessimistic view of things that macrohistory would. Military macrohistory looks better than military microhistory, for the strategic picture of campaigns and maneuvers are more appealing than the down-and-dirty life of the soldier on the front lines. Thus a good military microhistory piece can frequently be described as "anti-war" for it shows the personal carnage that war creates better than the view from division HQ. Likewise, civilian microhistory will look at the hard realities of lives in different eras, much as Musgrave alludes to above. Many liberal-leaning historians will gravitate towards that microhistory, both to earnestly give a more complete view of history than our standard macrohistory and to use the look at the lives of the commoners of the past to cast doubts about the modern socioeconomic order. Thus, this scuffle between classic macrohistory and modern microhistory/social history has merits on both sides. Macrohistory hides a lot of the social and economic pathologies behind cold statistics. Microhistory, if done with the wrong spin, wallows in those pathologies to make an ideological point. Both views are useful, just as macroeconomics and microeconomics are useful. However, both should be done accurately and try not to let the writer twist history in his ideological direction.

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