I’ll admit that one of the issues I have been having in attempting to envisage global and transnational history and what they might entail is the potential scope of the subjects. At times, it seems that there are so many subjects with numerous possible transnational connections that it is difficult (and quite daunting) to identify what they are and what might be important. Thus, I feel that a micro-historical approach is useful as an entry point into doing global and transnational history. One of the benefits of microhistory, as illustrated by Andrade is that it brings theory into actuality through putting a human focus on cross-cultural connections. Through focusing on an individual, it is possible to see links that would have been overlooked by a history of broader processes such as the role played by actors who are individually insignificant yet they illustrate global connections. This also provides a more intimate view of history which illustrates how human lives were affected by global networks and disruptions such as trade and conflicts. Braudel identifies the most important aspect of doing history to be imagination and this method certainly does capture it. It is impossible not to feel some level of emotional response to the plight of the Chinese farmer stuck between two warring nations in Taiwan. However, surely the narrative aspect of this kind of history is in danger of falling too far into imagination. It is possible, when starting with a subject so small to create connections that are tenuous at best. A similar criticism is levelled at Carlo Ginzburg’s influential The Cheese and The Worms. In line with his conception of microhistory, Ginzburg suggests that the exceptional cosmological beliefs of an Italian peasant are indicative of the existence of a broader sub-stratum of peasant beliefs that remained hidden from official culture. However it has been suggested that this is something of a stretch as no evidence of this belief system exists elsewhere. Surely this problem becomes greater when the processes being illuminated are on a much more global scale and the various factors to contend with are more complex.

Another criticism levelled at microhistory is that it is an approach that neglects broader contexts, suggesting that it is incompatible with transnational history which must consider the contexts of the nations involved and how they shape the connections between them. Can be seen that microhistory does not ignore these broader contexts, it simply explores what it is to be an individual actor within them – which is surely a worthwhile effort.

Similarly, a micro historical approach allows historians to examine the broader contexts of events that have previously been explained on a local level. The Singapore mutiny is a prime example of this as a focus on this singular event, which the author admits was of little global significance in 1915, means that the causes of the mutiny can be traced through connections which reveal a much more global image that the traditional characterisation of local disruptions. This additional transnational aspect gives this event new importance in the history of Indian independence and colonial resistance

However, a micro historical approach does not just illuminate new transnational aspects of histories traditional explained at a local level. It also provides the opportunity to explore different levels of transnational exchanges within the same community. Again, this is significant in areas which have a colonial past as narrowing the scope of enquiry allows us to see divergences from the accepted narratives of colonial relations. In changing the scale of study I am reminded of Karen Hughes’ study of indigenous Australian women around Lake Alexandrina and their relations with settler-born women in the same area. The legislation that made Australia an independent nation in 1905 characterises Australia as being founded in the image of a European state. This transplantation of European culture shaped the nation through its implementation of laws which stopped the immigration of ‘non-whites’ from countries with previous migrant links, and gave preference to the European settlers, suggesting that there was no longer any cultural exchange occurring. However, in narrowing the focus to the lives of women in a particular area, Hughes discovered that networks of cross-cultural exchange existed below the official level through the interactions of settler-born women and indigenous women, showing that Australia was not simply a product of its European heritage, rather it was shaped by a process of cultural negotiation.

Heather Streets-Salter, The Local Was Global:
The Singapore Mutiny of 1915, Journal of World History 24 (2013).

Andrade, Tonio, ‘A Chinese Farmer, Two African Boys, and a Warlord: Toward a Global Microhistory’,Journal of World History 21, 4 (2010), pp. 573-591.

Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and The Worms: The cosmos of a sixteenth century miller, translated by John Tedeschi, Anne Tedeschi, John Hopkins University Press, 1976

Dominick La Capra, History and Criticism, Cornell University Press, 1987

Karen Hughes, Opening Spaces of Possibility in Ngarrindjeri Country: micro-histories and things that matter, Australian Feminist Studies, Volume 27, Issue 73, 2002


Scale in Micro History and Global History

One thought on “Scale in Micro History and Global History

  • February 15, 2016 at 7:07 pm

    Great and thanks a lot for the further references for all of us: I was unaware of the K. Hughes, Opening Spaces article. Happy to follow it up.

    Reading your post along and in comparison with some others, such as “The good and the bad in micro history” (by the way: did you have the movie “The good, the bad, and the ugly” in mind?) leaves me wonder whether we should spend a bit more time with Andrade in class tomorrow. Both of you hint at Braudel, the “lack of evidence” (there can also be a problem of too much evidence – but that is me the 19th century historian; I sometimes envy my early modern colleagues where chains of evidence are disrupted and a dash of imagination has to fill the “clues”) – so: the limits of Andrade’s micro history aside – what are the larger questions & issues he is able to tease out or does it fall flat in the end?

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