Microhistory in Management History and Organization Theory
Management & Organizational History
Manuscript deadline: 17 February 2023
Special Issue Editors:
Liv Egholm, Copenhagen Business School
Michael Heller, Brunel Business School
Michael Rowlinson, University of Exeter Business School
There has been a resurgence of interest in microhistory. The classic texts associated with the subject remain immensely popular: The Cheese and the Worms (Ginzburg, 1992); The Return of Martin Guerre (Zemon Davis, 1983); and The Great Cat Massacre (Darnton, 1984). These provide a reference point, which has provided the basis for increasing reflection on the theoretical significance and methodological distinctiveness of microhistory (Magnússon & Szijártó, 2013), such as the special issue of Past and Present on ‘Global History and Microhistory’ (Ghobrial, 2019). Attention has also been paid to microhistory from management and business history as well as organization studies (Bourguignon & Floquet, 2019; Decker, 2015).
Microhistory offers an opportunity to reconceptualise relationships which lie at the heart of historical research and historiography: the historical nexus between the particular and the general, agency and structure, the micro and the macro. Microhistorians are known for their methodological habit of reading sources forensically in their search for historical clues. It implies reading historical sources ‘against the grain’ (Decker & McKinlay, 2020, pp. 26-27), or as Levi (2019: 41) puts it, ‘beyond the edge of the page’, carefully looking for what Ginzburg refers to as “unintended evidence” (Ginzburg, 2016). The use of microhistory as a magnifying glass can be seen as the equivalent of a detective’s tool. Sherlock Holmes´ working methods are often used as a metaphor for microhistory’s careful readings and detection of clues (Ginzburg, 2013 (1979)), often within “exceptional normal” cases (Grendi, 1977).
For this reason, the trademark of microhistorical methodology is to trace sources and clues throughout and across archives (Ginzburg, 2013). The names of actors, places, concepts, events, or objects are used as concrete entry points to show how previously unrelated spaces, temporalities, and fields are woven together in practice. This mapping demonstrates great potential in revealing unnoticed relations between, for example, family life and entrepreneurship (Popp & Holt, 2013), religious practices and trade (Trivellato, 2019), or philanthropic gift giving and the establishment of the welfare state (Egholm, 2021).
The purpose is not to argue for the universal value of the exceptional; it is to show, rather, how discrete historical events challenge our conceptualisations of the universal, and provide essential clues to what can be considered as normal (Ginzburg, 1979; Peltonen, 2001). Accordingly, the reduction of scale is not the study of the “microness” of a phenomenon (Levi, 2019, p. 38). The reduction of scale, rather, provides the historian with a heuristic tool to craft new theories by distorting or amending metanarratives and reformulating historical concepts and relations. Without explicitly mentioning microhistory, a series of organizational phenomena have been reconceptualized from a close reading of sources, with notable examples being the career (McKinlay, 2002), and entrepreneurship (Popp & Holt, 2013. Thus, microhistory shows how, “history is a discipline of general questions and ‘local’ answers” (Levi, 2019, p. 45).
The historic turn (Rowlinson, Hassard, & Decker, 2014) has pushed for a revised understanding of past context as offering more than simply temporal variables for universal theorising (Van Lent & Durepos, 2019). Historical phenomena often remain, however, reduced to consequences or affectations of particular contexts. In contrast, microhistory calls out for a grounding and explanation of the past through analyses of how actors, places, concepts, events or objects interact and are woven together in contradictory and often different fields and interests. In so doing, microhistory exposes how both individuals and social structures of all kinds are produced simultaneously through relationships and processes.
This special issue’s scope is to explore the methodological, ontological, and empirical strengths of microhistory to advance management history and organization studies. Therefore, we invite both theoretical, and theoretically informed empirical submissions that will further the contribution of microhistory in business history, management, and organizational history, as well as management and organization theory.
Questions and topics of interest for the special issue may include:
- How does the use of microhistory question, elaborate, or develop macro theories or broader conceptualisations from within the confines of discrete and particular historical studies
- How do microhistorical methodologies of reading “beyond the edges of the paper” contradict and undermine broader historical narratives in business and management and organizational history such as Marxism, functionalism, institutionalism, neo-liberalism, the resource-based view of the firm, and economic path dependency?
- What are the advantages and concerns for the use of historical archival research, source criticism, triangulation, and historical interpretivism when innovative microhistorical methodologies work with “dissonant sources” and “unintended evidence”?
- What is the impact of microhistory in relation to archival ethnography and the employment of micro historical sources (e.g., letters, diaries, postcards, travel accounts, scrapbooks, and memoirs)?
- What is the way in which local knowledge and local environment historically create organizational, business, and entrepreneurial opportunities?
- How does a microhistorical approach reconceptualise the relationship between agency and structure in business and management and organizational history?
- What is the relationship between the different scales of history? In particular, to what extent do microhistories develop historical accounts that reflect on a granular scale broader organizational and business historical environments and trends?
- How can we account for generalisation by using a microhistorical approach? How can local answers reply to general questions by showing complex and often ambiguous connections in historical archives?