Micro history: Trace its origin and development in different countries


Carlo Ginzburg one of the best-known historians identified with micro history, traces the first use of this term to an American scholar, George R. Stewart. In his book, Pickett’s Charge : A Micro history of the Final Charge at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863, published in 1959, Stewart uses the term. The book is centre on an event which lasted for only jabot twenty minutes.

In 1968, Luis Gonzalez used the term micro history’ in the subtitle of his book which deals with the changes experienced over four centuries by a tiny, ‘forgotten’ village in Mexico. In fact, as Gonzalez himself pointed out, the term was also used in 1960 by Fernando Braided. But, for Braudel, it had a negative connotation’ and was synonymous with the ‘history of events’. The word appears in a novel by Raymond Queneau in 1965. This novel was translated into Italian by Italo Calvino in 1967. From this and from its use in Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table (1975) that this word

I came to be used extensively for certain kind of historical practice. Giovanni Levi was the first Italian historian to extensively use this term.


Thus micro history, as a conceivable historical practice, emerged during the 1970s and the 1980s in Italy. Although it had its variants in Germany in Alltagsgeschichte or the ‘history of everyday life’, and in France and the United States in the new cultural history, it is the Italian micro historians who set most of the agenda for writing this version of history.

Carlo Ginzburg, Giovanni Levi, Carlo Poni, Edoardo Grendi and Gianna Pomata are some of the Italian historian’s fichu made the word famous through their writings. Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms’: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (1976), ‘ The Enigma opera: Pier Della Francesca (1981), and Ecstasies: Deciphering the Witches’ Sabbath (1990), and Giovanni Levi’s Inheriting Power: The Story of an Exorcist (1985) are some of the representative texts of this historiographical trend.

The Italian journal Quaderni Storici, right since {its foundation in 1966, has served as the channel for this trend in historiography. However, micro history is part of a wider trend which includes intensive local and individual studies by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in France, Hans Medick in Germany, and Robert Darnton and Natalie Zeon Davis in the US.

Micro history is a late modern, sometimes, postmodern, response to the problems of modern historiography. The micro historians are critical of not only the Rankean paradigm, but also the macro historical paradigms developed by Marxism, the Annals School and even the old social history.


The micro historians do not have an optimistic view about the various benefits brought about by the modern technology. Thus the objection to the macro historical discourse is not only, methodological, but also ethical and political. The macrohistoricaI conception, they argue, praise the achievements of modernization, modern science and technology while ignoring the human cost; they also neglect the experiences of the ‘little people’ who has to bear the brunt of ‘progress’. The micro historians define their historiographical practice against approach of the analytical 41 social science, met history of Marxism and the non-human grand history of the Annales School, particularly Braudel.

The micro historians trace the origins of this trend to the crisis of macro history in the 1970s. There was an increasing disenchantment with grand narratives and the social scientific studies based on quantitative data not because these approaches were inherently wrong but because they did not capture the reality at the micro level. According to the micro historians, the attempt should be ‘to open history to peoples who would be left out by other methods’ and ‘to elucidate historical causation on the level of small groups where most of life takes place’.

Giovanni Levi, one of the founders of this trend, points out that it is now generally accepted that ‘the 1970s and 1980s were almost universally years of crisis for the prevailing optimistic belief that the world would be rapidly and radically transformed along revolutionary lines’.

Moreover, ‘many of the hopes and mythologies which had previously guided a major part of the cultural debate, including the realm of historiography, were proving to be not so much invalid as inadequate in the face of the unpredictable consequences of political events and social realities – events and realities which were very far from conforming to the optimistic models proposed by the great Marxist or functionalist systems’.


This crisis also entailed conceptual and methodological failure to comprehend the reality at the ground day-to-day level. Levi states that the ‘conceptual apparatus with which social scientists of all persuasions interpreted current or past change was weighed down by a burden of inherited positivism.

Forecasts of social behavior were proving to be demonstrably erroneous and this failure of existing systems and paradigms required not so much the construction of a new general social theory as a complete revision of existing tools of research’.

Micro history was one response to this comprehensive crisis. It was a groundbreaking and radical response and it took the historiography away from its focus on the ‘big structures, large processes and huge comparisons’. Instead, it concentrated on the small units in society. It was severely critical of the large quantitative studies and macro level discourses because it distorted the reality at small level.

It focused on the small units and on the lives of the individuals living within those units. It was felt that this would lead to better understanding of reality at small level. As Giovanni Levi put it: ‘The unifying principle of all micro historical research is the belief that microscopic observation will reveal factors previously unobserved.’


However, according to Levi, it was not at the theoretical level that its significance should be seen. Micro history is ‘essentially a historiographical practice whereas its theoretical references are varied and, in a sense, eclectic’. It was a historiographical experiment which has ‘no body of established orthodoxy to draw on’.

There were various other reactions to this crisis. One of them was, in the words of Levi, the resort to ‘ a desperate relativism, neo- idealism or even the return to a philosophy riddled with irrationality’. However, Levi believed that the ‘historical research is not a purely rhetorical and aesthetic activity’.

He firmly takes the side of historians and social scientists who believe that there is a reality outside the texts and it is possible to comprehend it. Thus the micro historian is ‘not simply concerned with the interpretation of meanings but rather with defining the ambiguities of the symbolic world, the plurality of possible interpretations of it and the struggle which takes place over symbolic as much as over material resources’. Thus, for Levi, micro history is poised delicately between the approach of the analytical social sciences and the postmodernist relativism. Micro history thus had a very specific location within the so-called new history.

It was not simply a question of correcting those aspects of academic historiography which no longer appeared to function. It was more important to refute relativism, irrationalism and the reduction of the historian’s work to a purely rhetorical activity which interprets texts and not events themselves.’


Carlo Ginzburg supports Levi ‘against the relativist positions, including the one warmly espoused by Ankersmit that reduce historiography to a textual dimension, depriving it of any cognitive value’.

The adherents of micro history in Italy had started as Marxists and, in keeping with their Marxist past, they retain three elements of the Marxist theory of history. They believe:

i) That social and economic inequality exists in all societies;

ii) That culture is not completely autonomous, but is associated with economic forces; and

iii) that history is nearer to social sciences than to poetry and is, therefore, based on facts and requires rigorous analysis. Moreover, the subject matter the historians deal with is real. Thus micro history, although recognizing that ‘all phases through which research unfolds are constructed and not given’, is categorized, according to Ginsburg, by ‘an explicit rejection of the skeptical implications (postmodernist, if you will) so largely present in European and American historiography of the 1980s and early 1990s’.

It is defined by its ‘insistence on context, exactly the opposite of the isolated contemplation of the fragmentary advocated by Ankersmit’. It focuses on what Edoardo Grendi, one of its ideologues, called the ‘exceptional normal’. Methodologically, as Levi points out, it is characterized ‘as a practice based on the reduction of the scale of observation, on a microscopic analysis and an intensive study of the documentary material’. He further emphasizes that ‘For micro history the reduction of scale is an analytical procedure, which may be applied anywhere independently of the dimensions of the object analyzed’.

The micro historians believe that it is only at the small level that the real nature of various values and beliefs held by people may be revealed. Roger Chertier, commenting on Ginzburg’s famous book, The Cheese and the Worms, captures this aspect of micro history clearly : ‘It is this reduced scale, and probably on this scale alone, that we can understand, without deterministic reduction, the relationships between systems of beliefs, of values and representations on the one hand, and social affiliations on the other.’

The study of the small scale is also undertaken by the cultural anthropologists, led by Clifford Geertz, whose method of thick description finds resonance in some of the works of these historians. However, there are many points of differences between the two. Firstly, the micro historians accord more importance to theory than what Geertz and his followers do. Secondly, they are not willing to go far in the direction of relativism. And, lastly, they criticize a homogeneous conception of culture in the works of Geertz.

As Levi says:

‘It seems to me that one of the main differences of perspective between micro history and interpretive anthropology is that the latter sees a homogeneous meaning in public signs and symbols whereas micro history seeks to define and measure them with reference to the multiplicity of social representations they produce.’

Levi summarizes the basic features of micro history : ‘the reduction of scale, the debate about rationality, the small clue as scientific paradigm, the role of the particular (not, however, in opposition to the social), the attention to reception and narrative, a specific definition of context and the rejection of relativism’.

But micro historians should not be viewed as a monolithic bloc even in Italy. There are wide differences between them. On the one hand, there is Levi who is theoretically much closer to the analytical history and believes that history is a social science, and not a work of art.

On the other hand, Gianna Pomata believes that there is ‘a dazzling prospect of a history that would be thoroughly up to the most rigorous standards of the craft while also matching, in terms of vitality and intensity of vision, the work of art’. Carlo Ginzburg stands somewhere in the middle. On the whole, it may be said, as Georg G. Iggers points out, that micro history ‘has never been able to escape the framework of larger structures and transformations in which history takes place’.

However, it can be said in defence of the micro historians that it is a conscious choice and not some theoretical slip. Most of them have chosen to criticize the methodology of macro history; but, at the same time, they have thoroughly rejected the relativism associated with the linguistic turn, postmodernism, and cultural relativism.

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