Sunday, March 9, 2014

Microhistory and Macrohistory, Working Together

Historia (1894) by Gyzis
I think of history as having two different approaches, broadly speaking.  Microhistory is focused on individuals, the type of research that genealogists do.  We try to find as much information as we can about our ancestors and collateral family members so that we can learn about them as individuals.  Macrohistory (or just history) is about the world around individuals, the events and movements and eras that affected those ancestors.  Last weekend and this weekend I attended events with different emphases on history but that incorporated both aspects, and I started thinking about how the two work together.

The weekend of March 1 and 2 I was at the San Francisco History Expo.  This event primarily is about macrohistory.  More than 60 groups participated, most of them focused on topics such as San Francisco neighborhoods, different ethnic groups, and organizations such as the fire department and the Masons.  Their information was about the history of the times the groups were in San Francisco, how they reacted to changing times, significant historical events that occurred in the city, and similar subjects.  A few reenactors walked through the Expo portraying historical characters from San Francisco's past — Emperor Norton, Adolph Sutro, Domenico Ghirardelli.  There were also a small number of genealogical groups.  We microhistorians talked with people about how they could learn more about their ancestors and their lives in San Francisco and sometimes pointed an attendee in the direction of one of the history groups that might have helpful information.

On Saturday, March 8, I was at the 9th annual African American Family History Seminar in Sacramento.  This was a genealogy event, so most of the sessions focused on tools and techniques that could help people find their ancestors and learn more information about them.  Tom Stratton, the seminar's keynote speaker, however, is a (macro)historian who spoke about Lieutenant Colonel Allen Allensworth and the town he founded in California.  Stratton discussed the historical events that occurred during Allensworth's life and how they affected him and informed many of the choices he made.  Stratton also talked about Allensworth State Historic Park and the interpreters (historic reenactors) who help recreate the feeling of the town and bring alive its history.

To really bring a historical character alive, an interpreter/reenactor — such as the ones at the San Francisco History Expo and Allensworth State Historic Park — wants to learn as much detail as possible about the person he is portraying.  But he also needs to understand the history of the times in which that person lived.  Think about yourself:  You are influenced and affected by the history and culture of where you grew up and where you live.  If you were living in a different country, a different era, you wouldn't be exactly the same person you are now.

Mark Twain (1895)
An excellent example of someone interpreting a historical person is Hal Holbrook, who has continually received great acclaim for his portrayal of Mark Twain in his one-man stage show.  Holbrook has studied Twain in depth, but he also studied the times in which he lived, not only to learn what influenced Twain but to think about how Twain reacted to what happened around him.  Because of that he can portray Twain as a real person and react in character.

That blending of microhistory and macrohistory can help us understand our ancestors better.  It's natural to focus on finding as many pieces of information as possible about them as individuals, but we also need to study the greater historical times they lived in, because that helps us understand what affected them and why they made some of the choices they did.

I remember one day when I was working at the Oakland Family History Center someone came to the desk to ask for help in solving a question about her ancestors.  After listening to her description of the problem, the background of the family, the location, and the period, I told her there were not a lot of records available for that area at that time, but that she should look at the history of what was going on there to learn what was bringing people there for settlement and which groups were there.  She looked shocked and said, "I have to learn about history to do genealogy?"

Well, no, you don't.  You only have to learn about history if you want to be successful with your genealogy.

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