Proposal preview

Applied microhistory: Theoretical, ethical and methodological issues.

As time puts things into perspective, the heated and sometimes misleading historiographical debates of the 1970s and 1980s on micro-history and its alleged focus on small subjects have faded away. Yet in the meantime historical micro-analysis has emerged as a useful method to approach a very diverse set of questions in different fields of social sciences and humanities. Economic history, positioned as it awkwardly is between the two cultures of history and economics, offers the ideal ground to develop the methodological potential of micro-historical method.
Micro-analysis focuses in fact on the reduction of scale as an instrument to answer theoretical general questions, maintaining a dynamic tension between ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ perspectives. In so doing, it offers a logical procedure to infer general considerations from specific cases, providing an alternative or a complement to statistical methods. At the same time, it makes possible to assess the scope limiting conditions of economic models and theories, highlighting the contextual determinants of their validity. Last but not least, this approach implies a contingent view of the relationship between agency and structure, highlighting the creativity of the former and the complexity of the latter in an anti-deterministic perspective that takes at heart the complex and chaotic nature of economic dynamics.
This workshop aims at discussing the contribution of micro-analytical historical approaches to research in economic history on different historical contexts and with reference to different theoretical approaches in the social sciences, moving from the most classical focus on local communities to the challenge of studying at micro level global connections and institutions, and from the original connection with anthropology to applications to sociology and organization studies. In this perspective, the participants in the panel are invited to address the methodological issues implied in the use of a micro-analytical approach with reference to their research field, focusing on the theoretical contribution it can provide, but also on the changes micro-analysis goes through when translated into different domains.
A further important topic for discussion concerns the ethical problems that emerge when the reduction of scale somehow abolishes the distance that economic history usually establishes with its human subjects and their choices, highlighting the responsibilities of “applied history” when it informs decision making.

Format:
This panel will follow a standard format, with sic papers and one discussant. The papers will be pre-circulated. Each panelist will have 15-20 minutes for presentation and specific Q&A. Presentations will be followed in the second part by discussion and general Q&A.

Organizer(s)

  • Giovanni Favero Università Ca' Foscari Venezia gfavero@unive.it Italy
  • Paola Lanaro Università Ca' Foscari Venezia lanaro@unive.it Italy

Session members

  • Koji Yamamoto, University of Tokyo
  • Catherine Bishop, University of Sydney
  • Yasin Arslantas, London School of Economics
  • Markéta Skořepová, University of South Bohemia in České Budějovice
  • Carlo M. Travaglini, Università Roma Tre
  • Keti Lelo, Università Roma Tre
  • Giuseppe Stemperini, Università Roma Tre
  • Giovanni Favero, Università Ca' Foscari Venezia

Discussant(s)

  • Francesca Trivellato Yale University francesca.trivellato@yale.edu

Papers

Panel abstract

Historical micro-analysis has emerged in the recent decades as a method to approach a diverse set of questions in different fields of social sciences and humanities. Economic history offers the ideal ground to develop the methodological potential of micro-historical method. Micro-analysis makes possible to maintain a dynamic tension between ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ perspectives, to assess the scope limiting conditions of economic theories, and to adopt a contingent view of the relationship between agency and structure. offering a logical procedure to infer general considerations from specific cases. What are, however, the methodological issues implied in the use of a micro-analytical approach with reference to different research fields and as a complement to different methods? Participants are invited to focus on the changes micro-analysis goes through when translated into different domains, and on the ethical problems that may emerge reducing the distance with human subjects and their choices.

1st half

The exceptional normal at work: absence and presence, silence and voice

Giovanni Favero

The exceptional normal is one of the most classical arguments of microhistory. This paper reviews the discussions making reference to it, distinguishing a theoretical and a methodological interpretation. From the latter, a range of research strategies is drawn, proposing to use idiosyncratic knowledge to advance theoretical arguments. Such an approach satisfies the requirement of formal rigour without giving up the richness of historical evidence.

The exceptional normal is one of the most classical arguments of microhistory. This paper reviews the discussions making reference to it, distinguishing a theoretical and a methodological interpretation. From the latter, a range of research strategies is drawn, proposing to use idiosyncratic knowledge to advance theoretical arguments. Such an approach satisfies the requirement of formal rigour without giving up the richness of historical evidence.

Distrust and the taming of capitalism before its triumph: A micro-historical approach to economic development.

Koji Yamamoto

This study draws on a micro-historical approach to revisit England's culture of economic improvement between 1640 and 1720, a crucial period of its transformation into a global power backed by strong domestic industries. It is often suggested that England in this period grew strikingly confident of its prospect for unlimited growth. Courtiers, merchants, inventors and others declared that they were capable of realising profit and abundance. Yet such flowery promises were then, as now, prone to perversion, with important implications for trust at individual levels. The distinguishing feature of this paper is to draw on the early modern concept of ‘projecting’ in order to explore darker sides of England’s (and by implication more broadly European) obsession with improvement. Thriving theatre, literature and popular culture under the early Stuart monarchs in the early seventeenth century gave rise to predominantly negative public understanding of entrepreneurs or 'projectors', as someone who pursued Crown's...

This study draws on a micro-historical approach to revisit England's culture of economic improvement between 1640 and 1720, a crucial period of its transformation into a global power backed by strong domestic industries. It is often suggested that England in this period grew strikingly confident of its prospect for unlimited growth. Courtiers, merchants, inventors and others declared that they were capable of realising profit and abundance. Yet such flowery promises were then, as now, prone to perversion, with important implications for trust at individual levels. The distinguishing feature of this paper is to draw on the early modern concept of ‘projecting’ in order to explore darker sides of England’s (and by implication more broadly European) obsession with improvement. Thriving theatre, literature and popular culture under the early Stuart monarchs in the early seventeenth century gave rise to predominantly negative public understanding of entrepreneurs or 'projectors', as someone who pursued Crown's and their own profits at the public's expense. The paper explores how this emerging public distrust came to shape the micro-level negotiation in the subsequent decades over the nature of the incipient capitalism.  The result is a set of fascinating discoveries. By criticising greedy projectors, the incipient public sphere helped reorient the practices and priorities of entrepreneurs and statesmen away from the most damaging of rent-seeking behaviours. Far from being a recent response to mainstream capitalism, ideas about publicly beneficial businesses have long shaped the pursuit of wealth, power and profit. By attending to the micro-level negotiation of public distrust, this paper therefore unravels a rich history of broken promises of public service and ensuing public suspicion as early modern actors experienced it - a story that throws fresh light on England's 'transition to capitalism' and on the circulation of ethically meaningful knowledge lending itself to making capitalism more accountable.

The Problem with Counting: Transnational methodological experiments analysing 19th Century business and gender.

Catherine BISHOP (Sydney) and Jennifer Aston (Northumbria)

Researching 19th century women in business is a burgeoning field. From the US to Europe, Canada to Australia and beyond, historians are making full use of the newly available digital archive to investigate the experiences of women in small business. To date, much of this research has been undertaken independently, with few transnational conversations. With different sources available in each location, historians have used varying degrees of quantitative and qualitative methodologies, focusing on particular communities, drawing different conclusions and making comparisons difficult, This paper is an innovative experiment, testing to see the influence of methodologies on the drawing of historical conclusions. Jennifer Aston found a preponderance of widows in business in late 19th century Leeds, and estimated that around 10% of businesses in the town were run by women. Catherine Bishop estimated closer to 15-20% of businesses in Sydney were run by women in the middle of the 19th century,...

Researching 19th century women in business is a burgeoning field. From the US to Europe, Canada to Australia and beyond, historians are making full use of the newly available digital archive to investigate the experiences of women in small business. To date, much of this research has been undertaken independently, with few transnational conversations. With different sources available in each location, historians have used varying degrees of quantitative and qualitative methodologies, focusing on particular communities, drawing different conclusions and making comparisons difficult, This paper is an innovative experiment, testing to see the influence of methodologies on the drawing of historical conclusions. Jennifer Aston found a preponderance of widows in business in late 19th century Leeds, and estimated that around 10% of businesses in the town were run by women. Catherine Bishop estimated closer to 15-20% of businesses in Sydney were run by women in the middle of the 19th century, and most were run by wives. However, each used slightly different means to obtain these results. We have therefore switched methodologies, as far as possible, to see if our results reflect this rather than a significant difference in women’s experiences of business in the colonies and metropole.

Reconciling microhistory with cliometrics: Methodological notes and a case study from the Ottoman Empire history.

Yasin Arslantas

Quantitative techniques became popular in historical research with the rise of cliometrics among American economic historians in the 1950s. Since then economic history slowly shifted away from the narrative form into a branch of economics that itself became increasingly quantitative. One of the main objections of microhistorians of the 1970s and 1980s to this line of historiography was the latter’s ‘abstraction’ of details embedded in the lives of people or little emphasis on agency. In contrast, microhistorians pay a close attention to the role played by agency by reducing the scope of research to one single unit. By employing this reasoning, microhistory too aims to answer big questions but does so through the lens of small clues. Although it was born as a result of dissatisfaction with large-scale analysis of cliometrics (and of Annales school), these two schools of historiography have thus far remained enemies rather than partners. This paper...

Quantitative techniques became popular in historical research with the rise of cliometrics among American economic historians in the 1950s. Since then economic history slowly shifted away from the narrative form into a branch of economics that itself became increasingly quantitative. One of the main objections of microhistorians of the 1970s and 1980s to this line of historiography was the latter’s ‘abstraction’ of details embedded in the lives of people or little emphasis on agency. In contrast, microhistorians pay a close attention to the role played by agency by reducing the scope of research to one single unit. By employing this reasoning, microhistory too aims to answer big questions but does so through the lens of small clues. Although it was born as a result of dissatisfaction with large-scale analysis of cliometrics (and of Annales school), these two schools of historiography have thus far remained enemies rather than partners. This paper argues that quantitative economic history can greatly benefit from microscopic analysis. First, it addresses the problem that economic historians are getting less and less concerned about the details lost in their regressions. Second, as a case study to investigate the aforementioned contribution, this paper uses the history of an Ottoman family in the long 18th century focusing on its rise and fall.

2nd half

A way to the ordinary people. Microhistory in the context of the Czech rural history.

Markéta Skorepova

Microhistory as a tool, method or even a philosophy of historical analysis was discussed among Czech scholars for nearly 20 years. The birth of microhistory in the 1970s went unheeded as the Czech historiography was forced Marxist and east-orientated until 1989. Even in 1990s, after the revolution, the influence of the “classical” Italian microhistory was not essential on the contrary to the French Annales school or historical demography, which had been known in fact since their beginnings thanks to the quite a common knowledge of French language among (elder) Czech scholars. Awareness of the microhistory (or of the trends in historiography in general) grew with the help of German translations that time. The aim of this paper is to summarize the results of the Czech scholars inspired by microhistory and show how the concept of microhistory can be applied on the sources available for the Czech countryside in the past....

Microhistory as a tool, method or even a philosophy of historical analysis was discussed among Czech scholars for nearly 20 years. The birth of microhistory in the 1970s went unheeded as the Czech historiography was forced Marxist and east-orientated until 1989. Even in 1990s, after the revolution, the influence of the “classical” Italian microhistory was not essential on the contrary to the French Annales school or historical demography, which had been known in fact since their beginnings thanks to the quite a common knowledge of French language among (elder) Czech scholars. Awareness of the microhistory (or of the trends in historiography in general) grew with the help of German translations that time. The aim of this paper is to summarize the results of the Czech scholars inspired by microhistory and show how the concept of microhistory can be applied on the sources available for the Czech countryside in the past. From my point of view, microhistory is still animating and stimulating concept which can be used for uncovering many cultural, economic, social, spiritual and habitual aspects of the past as well as individual human stories.

Urban history through the integration of cartographic, descriptive and quantitative sources: Rome in the 18th and 19th centuries

Keti Lelo, Giuseppe Stemperini & Carlo M. Travaglini

The transformation processes that mark the evolution of cities between the 18th and 19th centuries solicit the need for a study of the city with regard not only to changes in buildings, spaces and urban furnishings, but also to the demographic, economic and, more generally, social aspects that mark the modernisation processes that distinguish the transition to contemporary city. The goal of this paper is to propose a critical analysis of the possible documentary sources available in Rome, with particular reference to the cartographic, census and fiscal (especially cadastral), administrative and constabulary ones. The aim is to discuss not only the variability of the degree of reliability and the possibilities of diachronic comparability, but also the reliability of useful integration processes and, where the sources relate to certain spatial elements, also of cartographic rendering and integration in a geographical information system. In particular, with reference to this last aspect, it...

The transformation processes that mark the evolution of cities between the 18th and 19th centuries solicit the need for a study of the city with regard not only to changes in buildings, spaces and urban furnishings, but also to the demographic, economic and, more generally, social aspects that mark the modernisation processes that distinguish the transition to contemporary city. The goal of this paper is to propose a critical analysis of the possible documentary sources available in Rome, with particular reference to the cartographic, census and fiscal (especially cadastral), administrative and constabulary ones. The aim is to discuss not only the variability of the degree of reliability and the possibilities of diachronic comparability, but also the reliability of useful integration processes and, where the sources relate to certain spatial elements, also of cartographic rendering and integration in a geographical information system. In particular, with reference to this last aspect, it will be necessary to discuss the feasibility of some processes of simplification and standardisation of the information, in order to facilitate its utilisation and occasionally render the syntheses and cartographic representations possible.hrough the use of cartographic, descriptive and quantitative sources