Methods

Primer: Global Microhistory

Jessica Hanser and Adam Clulow
Title page of A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture A Native of Africa, but Resident Above Sixty Years in the United States of America Related by Himself

Overview

In 1791, the commander of an East India Company ship commented on the interplay between macro-level political and economic forces and the decisions and actions of seemingly marginal actors: “Forgive me for mentioning the circumstance which I do, to show, amongst numberless other instances, how a splendid act of government may be linked with the conduct of obscure individuals, separated even from its seat, at a distance of half the globe.” It is precisely this relationship between macro and the micro, deep structures and contingency, big state actors and minor players, that practitioners of global-microhistory aim to explore.

The modules in Methods present case studies that demonstrate how scholars interpret different kinds of historical evidence in world history.

Essay

In 1791, the commander of an East India Company ship commented on the interplay between macro-level political and economic forces and the decisions and actions of seemingly marginal actors: “Forgive me for mentioning the circumstance which I do, to show, amongst numberless other instances, how a splendid act of government may be linked with the conduct of obscure individuals, separated even from its seat, at a distance of half the globe.” It is precisely this relationship between macro and the micro, deep structures and contingency, big state actors and minor players, that practitioners of global-microhistory aim to explore.

Working in the wake of the ‘global turn’ in history writing, historians such as Tonio Andrade, Francesca Trivellato, Emma Rothschild, and Margot Finn began to call for a new methodology that might serve to weave compelling humanistic narratives into large-scale analyses, thereby populating global history and social science models with people. Such scholarship would incorporate the methods of Italian microhistory but use these to study macro-level global phenomena.

An important formulation was provided by Francesca Trivellato who suggested that the microhistorical approach, first developed in Europe during the 1970s and 80s by Carlo Ginzburg, Giovanni Levi, and Roy Ladurie, might provide a needed corrective to overly facile global/world histories. In her words, “We may wish to return to their writings…to renew and embolden original efforts to blend together social scientific analysis and narration, this time on the global stage.” Trivellato refers to this new hybrid methodology as ‘global history on a small scale,’ while Sanjay Subrahmanyam used the term ‘connected histories,’ to describe a similar approach that would allow historians to seek out the “fragile threads that connected the globe, even as the globe came to be defined as such.” It was ultimately Tonio Andrade, a historian of early modern global history centered on Taiwan, who coined the term ‘global microhistory.’

The hallmark of the global microhistory method is a microhistorical or small-scale focus on events and actors – often marginal or obscure ones including women, minor merchants, and slaves – who operated on a global stage. In the last two decades, this innovative approach to history writing has featured in works such as Jonathan Spence’s Question of Hu, Linda Colley’s The Tale of Elizabeth Marsh, Robert Harms’s Diligent, Natalie Zemon Davis’s Trickster Travels, Leonard Blussé’s Bitter Bonds, Francesca Trivellato’s Familiarity of Strangers, Sue Peabody’s Madeleine’s Children, and Jessica Hanser’s Mr. Smith Goes to China.

Global microhistories sometimes encounter the same types of criticism directed at microhistories: that is that they focus their attention on anomalous cases (‘the normal exception’), are largely or overly anecdotal, and rely too heavily on narrative and biographical detail.

Practitioners, however, argue that this new methodology provides a valuable antidote to the overly abstract, social scientific, and frequently Eurocentric direction global and world history has drifted towards. In 2010, Tonio Andrade suggested that historians should recover the human scale of world history and globalization:

World history has tended toward the social science side of history. We’ve made great strides building powerful models of global historical structures and processes: global silver flows, strange parallels, divergences great and small. But we’ve tended to neglect the human dramas that make history come alive. I believe we should adopt microhistorical and biographical approaches to help populate our models and theories with real people, to write what one might call global microhistory.

Margot Finn argues that structuring history biographically will not only appeal to a broader readership, but will also enable historians to test “overarching (and too often idealized) premises with dynamic, embodied examples of past human endeavor.” For Subrahmanyam a global approach which focuses on the movement and transmission of an idea or belief across cultures offers historians an opportunity to transcend the parochialism of their geographical specialty and avoid Eurocentrism. And Linda Colley goes as far as to claim that “There can and should be no Olympian version of world history, and there is always a human and individual dimension.”

For an excellent example of Global Microhistory in practice, see:

Tonio Andrade, “A Chinese Farmer, Two African Boys & a Warlord: toward a global microhistory”, Journal of World History 21 (2011).

Examples of the approach used in scholarship:

Trivellato, Francesca. “Is There a Future for Italian Microhistory in the Age of Global History?” California Italian Studies 2, no. 1 (2011). Accessed December 10, 2015.

Tonio Andrade, “A Chinese Farmer, Two African Boys & a Warlord: toward a global microhistory”, Journal of World History 21 (2011).

Sanjay Subrahmanyam, “Connected Histories: Notes towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia,” Modern Asian Studies, 31.3 (1997): 735-762.

Robert Harms, Diligent (Basic Books, 2002).

T. Brook, Vermeer’s Hat: The 17th Century and the Dawn of the Global World (Bloomsbury, 2008).

Sue Peabody, Madeleine’s Children: Family, Freedom, Secrets and Lies in France’s Indian Ocean Colonies.

Francesca Trivellato, Familiarity of Strangers.

L. Blusse, Bitter bonds: a colonial divorce drama of the 17th century.

Natalie Zemon Davis, Trickster Travels.

Linda Colley, The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History (2007).

Jessica Hanser, Mr. Smith Goes to China: Three Scots in the Making of Britain’s Global Empire (YUP, 2019).

Primary Sources

Title page of A Narrative of the Life and Adventures of Venture A Native of Africa, but Resident Above Sixty Years in the United States of America Related by Himself
Annotation:

In this excerpted source, Venture Smith recalls his experiences in the slave trade as a child. This source is especially important, as Smith gives a very vivid account of slave raiding, a common practice that took place during the peak years of the slave trade in the 18th century. Smith, the son of a Guinean Prince, was sold into slavery at the young age of three by his own mother. Unable to support the boy after a separation with his father, Smith was sold to a rich farmer. At the age of six, he was captured by a slave raiding party within the interior of Africa, traveling with them until he made his way to the coast two years later. This was not uncommon during the slave trade, as children were often sold to several parties before traveling the Middle Passage.

Bibliography

Trivellato, Francesca, Is There a Future for Italian Microhistory in the Age of Global History?, California Italian Studies 2, 2011.

Subrahmanyam, Sanjay, Connected Histories: Note towards a Reconfiguration of Early Modern Eurasia, Modern Asian Studies 31, 3, 1997.

Finn, Margot, Anglo-Indian Lives in the Later Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries, Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol.33, No.1, 2010.

How to Cite This Source
Jessica Hanser and Adam Clulow Primer: Global Microhistory in World History Commons,