Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Friday, November 22, 2013

Does your genealogy qualify as microhistory?

The use of the term "microhistory" has come up several times recently. I had an interesting comment from Adrian Bruce that said:
FamilySearch's FamilyTree is a major innovation technically - but how much of an innovation is it in *genealogical* terms? I think the phrase "One step forward; two steps back" applies. Take its inability to record Notes in *all* the places that GEDCOM based programs can (against the individual; against an individual's events / attributes; shared between lots of individuals and events ...) And what there is for Notes, only came in in October. How can one write micro-history for people without notes against specific events? 
And so far as I know, none of the major software platforms allow multi-person events. Why is this important? Take an emigration. Why should I enter the same event with the same descriptive Note against all members of my family on that ship? Or even copy the same stuff? And then how about the further linking of the emigration to the micro-history of the ship?
In addition, Tony Proctor in Ireland, sent me a link to a post he wrote entitled, "The Future Representation of the Past." If you review Tony's post, you will see that he is also involved in the concept of creating a context for microhistory. I usually have something to say about nearly every topic and this is no exception.

First, a definition of "microhistory." This term did not spring from the imaginations of the genealogists trying to legitimize genealogy as history, but it may well have come from the historians trying to grapple with family specific histories and not wanting to appear as "genealogists." So is the term "microhistory" just another euphemism for genealogy such as the use of the term "family history" in an attempt to sanitize the pursuit? I think the term is more of an attempt to justify an interest in history as a more detailed level than has been generally accepted in the past. But isn't this already being done in the area of biographies and autobiographies? The analysis could go on and on, but essentially the term "microhistory" is used as the opposite of "macrohistory.

To some extent, microhistory is an European phenomenon. See Giovanni Levi, “On Microhistory,” in Peter Burke, ed., New Perspectives on Historical Writing (University Park, Pa.., 1991) - See more in the article "What is Microhistory?" There is also a website called from the Center for Microhistorical Research is an independent research institute at the Reykjavik Academy ( However it should also be noted that there are opinions that use of the term is limited as can be seen from the statements made by Jill Lepore in an article entitled, "Historians Who Love Too Much: Reflections on Microhistory and Biography." Quoting from that article concerning a reticence of American historians to use the term microhistory:
One explanation for this reticence is that microhistory was established among historians of early modern Europe, where it has thrived, but there is no American school of microhistory, only practitioners who rarely if ever call themselves microhistorians and who, at any rate, may only occasionally dabble in microhistory.
Backing off from this type of discussion, I would think that the use of the term is more likely a way to approach individualized histories from the standpoint of "history" rather than an appropriate way of inducing genealogists to look at more than names and dates. For whatever reason, whenever some historian or other person wishes to cast a pejorative slant on genealogy, they take the position that genealogy is nothing more than the collection of names and dates. This is certainly true for some genealogists, but do I really become a historian merely by labeling my study "microhistory" simply to avoid the connotations that arise from labeling it as genealogy? I think not. On the other hand, much of the work done by serious genealogists is certainly on par with what has been produced by "historians."

Returning to the Lepore article, she offers the definition of microhistory as:
The recent microhistory conference's call for papers defined microhistory, in part, as the history of "hitherto obscure people" that "concentrates on the intensive study of particular lives" to reveal "the fundamental experiences and mentalit├ęs of ordinary people." 
Doesn't that kind of definition really describe what genealogists attempt to do in many cases?  The main issue then returns to what I have pointed out in the past; the lack of academic rigor and reliability in much of what passes for genealogy. Perhaps all the hand-wringing and angst (including my own) by some genealogists over the issue of the academic acceptability of genealogy is misplaced. Perhaps the legitimization of genealogy in academic circles comes from producing academically acceptable work rather than trying to insinuate ourselves into the hostile environment of academic history. Maybe it is a better idea to concentrate on raising genealogical standards and simply ignore historians but not ignore history?

Of course, both of my commentators cited at the beginning of this post as somewhat concerned with structuring the processes of recording genealogy to allow for the expansion into an area that could be called microhistory, but I am more concerned with the content of what we already produce as genealogists. As long as we are buried in the trash pile of unsourced and unreliable family trees, we will assume the smells and stains of what we have collectively created for the past hundreds of years as genealogists. We need to move on from on from our concerns with acceptance and become acceptable.

I do acknowledge that achieving any degree of acceptability is likely impossible as long as genealogy is viewed an open pursuit which can be done by anyone with a piece of paper and a pencil regardless of education, structure and intent. But rather than try to change all of the sloppy practitioners and make them over into academics, why not simply work towards including more people into the process of improving the general level of work done who are willing to improve?


  1. Standards of work, or lack thereof, can apply as equally to micro-history as to genealogy, James, so I don't agree that this is an issue of trying to get academic respect. My short work on Bendigo's Ring ( was about a place, and hence not really genealogy. However, the issues of research, evidence, and conclusions were the same. That work is something les than traditional history but also more than genealogy (or family history). I described it as micro-history because it's about the smaller things that constitute fine-grained history, but these things are often important to our family histories even though they are not always researched separately. Ring-fencing certain research topics and labelling them as "family history" seems artificially restrictive to me. For instance, if my family were immigrants to a country, or had to move to another place through work, then I may want to research the reasons. That may get me into politics, occupations, trade, and other subjects. Genealogists do treads these routes, even though they're stepping outside of the direct history of their families. This is good! I believe the main problem is that our software doesn't take the same generic view of micro-history, and sometimes restricts things even further to mere family trees.

    1. Exactly. I agree about the software limitations. I am not sure that the division between genealogy and microhistory is other than a arbitrary use of labels and definitions.

  2. Just a quick note for anyone confused by the hyphenation issue. Micro-history is a UK spelling whereas microhistory is a US one. It's a little like non-profit (UK) and nonprofit (US) in our use of hyphens. :-)

  3. James, you point out, "So is the term "microhistory" just another euphemism for genealogy such as the use of the term "family history" in an attempt to sanitize the pursuit? I think the term is more of an attempt to justify an interest in history as a more detailed level than has been generally accepted in the past."

    When using a modern genealogy program one can generate reports that can be edited to incorporate data about relationships that are not especially well built-in to the programs -- friends, neighbors, other associates such as Godparents. The source-citation routines do not allow inherently specifying such relationships as "the X family moved to Betazone with the Y and Z families," or that a document lists all the living nieces and nephews of a decedent.

    There is deliberately in FS-FT a limitation against incorporating such information in the 'tagging' system. The design wants to allow sources to be tagged to individuals from individually indexed entries, with no way to retrieve all the persons to whom a source (say, a US Census household entry) is tagged. At least in home genealogy programs one can look at the source attachments and get an idea of the scope of persons involved -- by name, if not by relationship.

    Genealogy is nothing if not about relationships and life-paths.

    1. One of the problems is that if the programs don't support the features, then the users don't keep the information because it isn't "important."