A question of scale

I was asked: “Is there a difference between local history and national history? (Apart from the scale obviously)”. The quick’n’dirty answer is: it’s all about the scale.

Well, this is how I see it, anyway, if you want to read on for the longer answer…

There are different kinds of local history. One is a long-standing ‘amateur’ enthusiast tradition, going back (at the very least) to the early modern antiquarians, and popular too among the Victorians. (A favourite with whom I’m familiar is AN Palmer, who wrote a whole series of books about Wrexham and the surrounding area in east Denbighshire. Like me, he was an East Anglian who ended up in Wales…) Local history as an academic approach/field (in Britain anyway) seems to date from around the mid 20th century, with the establishment of the first department at Leicester, by WG Hoskins.

In any case, local history is often a fertile crossover area between academics and non-academics – most university continuing education departments offer local history courses, for example. Or if you look at the ‘local interest’ section of a bookshop, you might see small, locally- or self-published books and booklets written by local enthusiasts sitting right next to scholarly studies of the same places. I’ve given talks to local history groups (it’s fun). People want to know about the histories of the places where they live and local history can give a real personal sense of connectedness to the past.

An academic local history centre like the one at Leicester won’t just be doing Leicester’s local history, but focusing on local history as an approach, and on teaching skills and methods. (It has a strong interdisciplinary emphasis as well.) They might be considering a wide range of scales below that of the nation-state, from the neighbourhood and parish upwards. (Regional history, often cutting across national borders, has been an important development in recent years.)

By focusing in depth on a geographically small area, it becomes feasible to get a historically broad and varied perspective on it: you can look at many different kinds of source, study different aspects of the place’s past and how they’re related. It’s possible to write something approaching ‘total history’: reconstructing the dense linkages between individuals that created community networks, exploring social relations, the economy, politics, religious experiences, civic institutions, topography, architecture, etc.

Alternatively, you can go deeply into certain specific topics or archival sources, with a particular locality as the focus for a detailed case study. At the county level, this has been the model for much of the historiography on early modern crime since the 1970s (yeah, I did it too).

Microhistory is probably the ultimate form of this and it can bring to life the experiences of (extra-)ordinary past people in an amazingly vivid and stimulating way. Two of my favourite history books ever are microhistories, The cheese and the worms and The return of Martin Guerre. These were books that made me realise as an undergraduate that early modern history didn’t have to be just standard political narrative/biography (The bloody Tudors, again) or depersonalised, large-scale economic history (The Industrial Revolution, yet again), which were the only ways I’d previously encountered the period. It just wasn’t true that there were no sources offering the experiences and perspectives of non-elite and nonliterate people.

So you can see the various localised history perspectives as a corrective to very broad-brush, generalising approaches that lose sight of local and individual variety, as well as a way of countering the tendency to compartmentalise history into different specialisms (political, economic, social etc) that never talk to each other.

Which doesn’t mean that the broad-brush approach is made redundant. It isn’t about arguing that we should all be doing one thing or the other; we should have a range of histories at different ‘scales’. Ideally, local historians will be working to understand how their small area fits into a larger picture, while their work gives synthesisers and broad-brush historians richer material to work with, hopefully leading to better and more nuanced general histories. And so we all benefit.

Or something along those lines.

Not much time for links today (if I don’t get on with my OBP piece I’m going to be in big trouble come 12 February…) but here’s a few:

Leicester Centre for English Local History
Mike Royden’s Local History pages
wikipedia article and biography of WG Hoskins
AN Palmer

If you google the phrase “local history”, you’ll get plenty more!

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4 Responses to A question of scale

  1. Sharon says:

    Oh, yeah, and I forgot to note that you might want to think about the rise of local/regional/microhistorical approaches in the context of greater scepticism about nationalism (and the reach of national identity) and the nation-state…

  2. There’s a ton of similar approaches in Germany, but I think there you get more along the lines of regional history mixed with the pickiest of microhistories — Ortsnamenkunde and Personennamenkunde …

  3. NDR says:

    Local history can, in some contexts, run up against problems of the lack of integration at the national level, and as such are not as much of a slice of the pie of national history. In the Early Modern Period, the uniformity of government and administration in England works much better for a local study showing something about national life than it would in France or Germany. Studies of witch trails, for instance, often pit local beliefs and juridical practices against those of state or religious authorities. These become more complex depending on how ‘the state’ is defined in German speaking lands, whether they are the local aristocrats, the ecclesiastical authorities, … all the way up to the empire itself. At least in cases of witch craft, higher authorities were always willing to put their two cents in, in which case the dimensions are simplified. Family law could be more complex, as evidenced by Ozment’s The Burgermeister’s Daughter, in which numerous courts with overlapping authority made contradictory rulings over the case of a single inheritance. Outside Europe, the interrelationship between local history and the nation can become more tenuous, a best predicting the form of a future nation, but not representing a current nation. Local histories in India tend to establish peculiarities that will become elements of conflict during the nationalizing period.

  4. Sharon says:

    Nat has added some great further thoughts here too. I didn’t say anything about the question of representativeness in the post ‘cos it was getting long enough already… but I agree with him. Even in England, it’s an issue. (I think it’s a problem in the crime historiography that the bulk of published studies have been based on south-eastern counties’ sources, but the results are taken as ‘national’ patterns.) More than a few influential studies published under the title of “early modern England” are actually about Essex. I think that’s more than a little problematic.

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