The Purpose of Microhistory is to elucidate historical causation at the level of small groups where most of life takes place and to open the history up to peoples who would be left out by other methods–Edward Muir1
I will get back to the book list from the last post soon and complain a bit about the history of what “we” eat, but I just can’t shake a question posed by my advisor. As I started working out what will probably be a dissertation on food systems in West Michigan at a meeting of my committee, they asked what keeps my study from being microhistory. I responded that most people live and did live in “midsized” cities, and when the US became more urban than rural during the teens most people did not live in places like New York and Chicago, but in cities like Grand Rapids. They rightfully questioned this bald assertion as I did not have the data with me, and I also knew that definitions of urban and rural are dubious at best. Yet, there is evidence for my argument.
First, when one looks at the current data, it is obvious that most people in the US don’t live in huge metropolises. Here is a tree map of populations by city:
Yet, as the 1920 census outlines well, urban areas are not bounded by municipal boundaries, and suburbs are not only geographically, but also “industrially and socially are parts of the cities themselves, differing only in the matter of governmental organization.” While I do not agree completely with the social aspect and, as a person who grew up in a suburb of a small city, would vehemently argue that they are culturally distinct, urban areas are not simply cities and a better categorization would be “metropolis.” When looking at current metropolises, one gets this:
I added the names of the lower and upper-end areas to give an idea of what metropolises are in each category. This gives an idea culturally of these places. For example, it can be argued that, barring the LA Chicano influence, the Phoenix area is more culturally aligned with Grand Rapids than Miami. Admittedly, these categories are pretty arbitrary. Albuquerque is just under one million, and as a person who lived for about five years in that town, it is more like Grand Rapids than Hot Springs AK. (In fact, I am beginning to see similarities between Albuquerque and Grand Rapids as I drift away from my reading list from last week and think about other things I have read such as a chapter on the political ecology of southwesterm Michigan and a monograph on New Mexico agriculture. But I don’t want to digress down that rabbit hole yet).
So, there is some contemporary evidence for my argument. The historical data is much more difficult to neatly show here. Definitions are slippery and every report comes with a warning to not make direct comparisons. Yet, it seems that there is a general consensus among US historians that the nation became urban by 1920. Yet, the definition for urban was anything over 2500 people (except for RI, MA, and NH which the explanation is not clear). You can read about it here in the 1910 census on page 53 or the 1920 census on page 43 where this table can be found:
So, whether more people lived in places like Grand Rapids than New York or Chicago is not really the relevant argument, but the fact that tens of millions of people did and still do makes their stories important in the national narrative. And, it could be argued that a massive chunk of history in the United States is suspended in a liminal state between urban and rural.
For example, I just finished reading a narrative of the history of Michigan, and the number of pages dedicated to the east side of the state and the auto industry was massively disproportionate to those on the west side cities and their industries/ Most notable was the dearth on the importance of agricultural products. The author noted Grand Rapids for its furniture and contribution to wartime troops (granted the author is a military historian). While there were more mentions of GR in the text than the twelve listed in the index, most of the history was Detroit-heavy. For example, there was no mention of black uprisings in the late 1960s outside of Detroit.
While I obviously have a bias, I am not simply splitting hairs. And if my work is considered a “microhistory” so be it. But to put it into perspective, would a study of Rochester NY, whose metro area is smaller than GR be microhistory? Or does metahistory in the United States have to fit into a particular socio-cultural narrative? I can’t answer these questions, but they do help me think as I continue reading. What do you think?
- Ruggiero, Guido, and Edward Muir. 1991. Microhistory and the Lost Peoples of Europe. Selections from Quaderni Storici. Johns Hopkins University Press. https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=cat09242a&AN=msuc.b144253689&site=eds-live.