Can Micro be Macro?

Even though I am still trying to finish my MA thesis, I cannot help but think forward to finding a dissertation topic. Now I like my MA thesis topic, and I think there is still much I could do with it, but I want to really love my dissertation topic (I think you need to in order to finish it). So recently I have been thinking about some potential avenues that might bring some of my diverse historical interests together into one project. In the past, I have dove directly into primary sources, and I probably will start that way once I begin work in earnest (a professor in undergrad dubbed me an “archive rat,” which I have proudly self-identified as ever since). However, I feel like there are so many potential dissertation topics that I should develop some sort of vague idea/hypothesis/theoretical framework before beginning or else I will get lost in archives for years, which is what brings me to my question driving this blog post: “Can Micro be Macro?”

Among my many interests as a historian are two approaches to history that I would love to bring together, macro and microhistory. Microhistory takes a short view of the past, but looks very deeply. Microhistory uses a small subject (like a person, or event) to understand the time in which the person lived or the event took place. What I really like about microhistory is its drilling down into the past, looking to evoke the realities of the time, while also tying the argument to broader trends (which distinguishes microhistory from a biography for example). The drawback of microhistory, though, is that the historian is limited to the person, event, thing, that they chose as their window into the time, thereby limiting the chronological scope.

While I am not sure if as many use the term macrohistory as microhistory, macrohistories look at general trends over a long period of time, giving up historical depth to take a long view of the past. From my reading, I have come across the most macrohistories in environmental history (my favorite so far being J. R. McNeill’s Something New Under the Sun, which looks at the drastic human-caused changes in the environment over the course of the twentieth century). Macrohistory seems the best at answering the “so what?” question so many of my professors have urged me to ask of my work. When examining broad trends, their importance is often undeniable. For example, McNeill addresses the future of the environment and humans’ place in it, hard to suggest that is not an important and relevant topic. Like microhistories, macrohistories are limited in their scope by their lens. Macrohistories can utilize a broad chronological scope, but they lack the ability to properly handle the complexities of specifics. Regardless of the skill of the historian, a macrohistory must limit the size and details of the selected examples, making generalities unavoidable.

Microhistory and Macrohistory are not exclusive of each other. Microhistorians tie their argument into larger narratives and trends (they need to answer the “so what?”). Macrohistorians need evidence that addresses specific things/events/people (they need to show that their arguments are based in historical reality). Clearly, there is overlap, but in general a history only uses one lens, macro or micro, with the other view as a supporting element. What I am trying to think through is bringing the micro and macro approaches together, providing the depth of a microhistory with the long term trend importance of a macrohistory. I guess another way to describe what I am thinking is the question: “How do I make a local history, world/international/transnational history?” I intend on doing some form of an urban history and I have enjoyed the freedom to dig deep into the past that a local history (like my MA thesis) provides. Though I can (and need to) tie local history into broader meanings to answer the “so what?” (for example, my thesis is dealing with meanings of Progressivism), I am left wanting the ability to do more than simply tie my narrative to another. So far the best way to deal with the micro/macro issue I have come up with is to use case studies, an approach many historians use that allows analytical depth into particulars with broader-view analysis. However, this approach does not completely satisfy me. Case studies inevitably fall into one camp or the other, more often in the macro view in my experience.

Perhaps there is no better way to bring out the rich historical details of the micro while maintaining a macro view, but bringing micro and macro views together in a more complete way still seems a worthwhile goal. When the past was still the present, it did not separate the micro and the macro. Everything happens at once in one big messy, complicated story. Historians organize the story so that the story makes sense and we can learn something from it. This organization is important because it is what provides the argument, turns a pile of events, people, and things into history. I still like the messiness, though.

2 responses to “Can Micro be Macro?”

  1. Both macro and microhistory are based on the same insight: that if you change the scale of your inquiry, you can ask new questions and discover new things. As you note, it is certainly possible to combine both approaches in a single work. This is something that I’ve tried to do with my own writing.

    You definitely need to love your dissertation topic. When I discuss project ideas with PhD students, I usually ask them to consider the following question: if you were on Amazon and you found that someone had already written the exact same book that you’re planning to write, would you buy it immediately? Would you wait for it anxiously and drop everything to read it when it arrived? A surprising number of them say, no, they’d lose interest in the subject at that point. But if you’re not crazy about your topic, why should anyone else care about it?


    1. Brian Sarnacki Avatar
      Brian Sarnacki

      Thank you for the comment! (and for reading) I really like your Amazon test for potential dissertation topics. I will definitely keep that in mind as I move forward!


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