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Sunday, 23 March 2014

We need both

Spotted just now via Twitter, an article which claims that 'academic historians' compose 'brief analyses or micro-histories - finely hewn articles for scholarly journals that their peers are obliged to review as an occupational duty, and make you wonder: what is academic history for?'

But these, after all, constitute the necessary building blocks of more wide-ranging syntheses (which one does hope are written in a way to be pleasing and accessible, certainly). Otherwise, the historian is just making stuff up and guessing.

Most historians are engaged both in undertaking what are often very micro-studies (here I would evidence my own short essay '"The Reserved Occupation"? Prostitution in the Second World War', which appeared in Women's History Magazine, no 41, June 2002. This was an investigation into the basis for what turned out to be the urban legend of the 1940s that prostitutes were exempt from direction of labour and that women could get out of conscription by claiming that they were members of the oldest profession. Pretty micro, really.), and also much larger studies which bring together the fruits of their own and others' researches.

I would claim (well, I would, wouldn't I?) that the revised second edition of my own Sex, Gender and Social Change in Britain since 1880 (2012) is a good deal stronger and more nuanced than the first edition (2000), both because I had myself investigated a number of outstanding loose ends (that prostitution urban myth, a good deal more detail on sex education in the UK) and because a lot of other scholars had been producing work in the area, much of which was in the form of articles in scholarly journals as well as major monographs such as Matt Houlbrook's Queer London, Alison Oram's Her Husband Was A Woman! and Laura Doan's Fashioning Sapphism, Hera Cook's The Long Sexual Revolution and many more.

One of my own very micro-micro, even nano, -studies, on the alleged fashionability of nipple rings in late Victorian/Edwardian high society, was undertaken when a friend who had been reading a popular work of history on the pre-Great War era asked me whether the author's claim that this was so, could possibly have been true. I like to think that I have done a little towards clearing up a misapprehension based on Iwan Bloch's somewhat uncritical attitude towards his sources. But a microstudy of this nature was also fueled by a sense of the wider social context of sexual mores and body practices.

The practice of history perhaps requires continual shifting of perspective from the narrow to the broad to the middle range. An analogy I always like is George Eliot's metaphor in Middlemarch of microscopical examination of a drop of water:
Even with a microscope directed on a water-drop we find ourselves making interpretations which turn out to be rather coarse: for whereas under a weak lens you may seem to see a creature exhibiting an active voracity into which other smaller creatures actively play... a stronger lens reveals to you certain tiniest hairlets which make vortices for these victims while the swallower waits passively at his receipt of custom.

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