- Rethinking Microhistory:A Comment
In "The Social Relations of Farming in the Early American Republic," Martin Bruegel promotes microhistory as an alternative to scholarship preoccupied with "big structures and large processes." The problem with macrohistory, according to Bruegel, is that its "bias towards flattening out the particularities of the past" (Bruegel is quoting Kenneth Arrow here) inevitably produces a backward-looking, deterministic reading of events. In his view, the best antidote to teleology is to focus attention "on the small scale and sometimes even on the singular event"—to study the choices that individual women and men made "on the ground." Although I share Bruegel's distaste for deterministic historical writing, I worry that his particular version of microhistory veers too far in the opposite direction toward antiquarianism.1 The purpose of my comment is suggest how approaching the study of ordinary men and women from the perspective of what Paul David and Mark Thomas have called "historical economics" has the potential to avoid both of these pitfalls.2
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Bruegel declares in his conclusion that "a microhistorical look at the social relations necessary to run a farm has the virtue of complicating the analysis of economic transactions in the early republican countryside." Many historians would find such a statement unobjectionable; indeed, it is common for historians to assert that the goal of their study is to "complicate" the analysis of some situation or event. For economists, however, such assertions are puzzling, to say the least. They do not see why making an analysis more complicated should necessarily be considered a good thing.
Economists, of course, seek to simplify—to understand (model) the essential characteristics of economic relationships. Historians, in turn, tend to react adversely to economists' efforts at simplification—to label them "reductionist." But why? What might justify such a negative reaction? Although one possibility is that economists' simplifications leave out important details, this in itself cannot be a compelling objection. After all, as Hayden White pointed out long ago, one of the essential characteristics of any historical narrative is that it is selective. When historians compose narratives, just as when economists build models, they impose structure on the bits and pieces of extant evidence by deciding which details should be included and which should be excluded.3
A more meaningful objection is that economists' simplifications distort our understanding in important ways—that is, leave out evidence that does not fit their arguments. But critics of a model (or, for that matter, a narrative) must do more than simply show that evidence that has been left out does not fit. For their objections to have force, critics must also be able to demonstrate how putting the additional evidence back in leads to a very different understanding—an alternative model or narrative. In other words, "complicating" an analysis in order to underscore its limitations should be only the first step. It is important also to "resimplify"—to fit the evidence into a new interpretative framework.
To see why this additional step is necessary, consider Bruegel's attempt to correct what he considers to be the overly romantic view that many historians hold of rural life in early America. Although his evidence that there were serious tensions within farming households and communities is convincing, most historians will not see it as anything new. Indeed, [End Page 556] Michael Merrill concluded his famous article, "Cash is Good to Eat," with a brief discussion of "contradictions within the household mode of production," focusing especially on the inequality that characterized relations within rural households.4 Merrell was aware that there was plenty of conflict within farming households and communities, but he thought it reasonable to abstract from such details for his larger purpose of contrasting the household mode of production with production for the market. Bruegel's act of complication cannot add to knowledge—cannot tell us anything new—until he shows that Merrill's simplification led him to misconstrue the differences between household and commodity production or at least caused him to miss essential features of the system of production he sought to describe.
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How then should Bruegel, or for that matter any historian, approach the task...