Sunday, July 26, 2009

"Scale" in history: micro, meso, macro

Doing history forces us to make choices about the scale of the history with which we are concerned. Take the analogy suggested by the maps above. Are we concerned with Asia, China, or Shandong? Or in historical terms, are we concerned with the whole of the Chinese Revolution; the base area of Yenan, or the specific experience of a handful of villages in Shandong during the 1940s? And given the fundamental heterogeneity of social life, the choice of scale makes a big difference to the findings (post).

Historians differ fundamentally around the decisions they make about scale. William Hinton provides what is almost a month-to-month description of the Chinese Revolution in Fanshen village – a collection of a few hundred families (Fanshen: A Documentary of Revolution in a Chinese Village). The book covers a few years and the events of a few hundred people. Likewise, Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie offers a deep treatment of the villagers of Montaillou; once again, a single village and a limited time (Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error). Diane Vaughan offers a full study of the fateful decision to launch the Challenger space shuttle (The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA). She hopes to shed light on high-risk technology decision-making through careful study of a single incident. These histories are limited in time and space, and they can appropriately be called “micro-history.”

At the other end of the scale spectrum, William McNeill provides a history of the world (A World History) and a history of the world’s diseases (Plagues and Peoples); Massimo Livi-Bacci offers a history of the world’s population (A Concise History of World Population); Jared Diamond offers a history of the interrelationships between the Old World and the New World through the medium of weapons and disease (Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies); and Goudsblom and De Vries provide an environmental history of the world (Mappae Mundi: Humans and their Habitats in a Long-Term Socio-Ecological Perspective: Myths, Maps and Models). In each of these cases, the historian has chosen a scale that encompasses virtually the whole of the globe, over millennia of time. These histories can certainly be called “macro-history.”

Both micro- and macro-history have important shortcomings. Micro-history leaves us with the question, “how does this particular village shed light on anything larger?”. And macro-history leaves us with the question, “how do these grand assertions about causality really work out in the context of Canada or Sichuan?”. The first threatens to be so particular as to lose all interest, whereas the second threatens to be so general as to lose all empirical relevance to real historical processes.

There is a third choice available to the historian, however, that addresses both points. This is to choose a scale that encompasses enough time and space to be genuinely interesting and important, but not so much as to defy valid analysis. This level of scale might be regional – for example, G. William Skinner’s analysis of the macro-regions of China (post). It might be national – for example, a social history of Indonesia (M. C. Ricklefs, A History of Modern Indonesia Since c. 1200). And it might be supra-national – for example, an economic history of Western Europe. The key point is that historians in this middle range are free to choose the scale of analysis that seems to permit the best level of conceptualization of history, given the evidence that is available and the social processes that appear to be at work. And this mid-level scale permits the historian to make substantive judgments about the “reach” of social processes that are likely to play a causal role in the story that needs telling. This level of analysis can be referred to as “meso-history,” and it appears to offer an ideal mix of specificity and generality.

Here are a few works that represent the best of meso-history: R. Bin Wong, China Transformed: Historical Change and the Limits of European Experience; Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy; and Charles Tilly, Coercion, Capital and European States: AD 990 - 1992. Wong and Tilly define their scope in terms of supra-national regions. Pomeranz argues for a sub-national scale: comparison of England's agricultural heartland with the Yangzi region in China. Each pays close attention to the problem of defining the level of scale that works best for the particular task. And each does a stellar job of identifying the concrete social processes and relationships that hold this regional social system together.

Both macro- and meso-history fall in the general category of "large-scale" history. So let's analyze this conception of history. Large-scale history can be defined in these terms.
  • The inquiry defines its scope over a long time period and/or a large geographical range;
  • the inquiry undertakes to account for large structural characteristics, processes, and conditions as historical outcomes;
  • the inquiry singles out large structural characteristics within the social order as central causes leading to the observed historical outcomes;
  • the inquiry aspires to some form of comparative generality across historical contexts, both in its diagnosis of causes and its attribution of patterns of stability and development.
Large-scale history falls in several categories.
  • History of the “long durĂ©e”—accounts of the development of the large-scale features of a particular region, nation, or civilization, including population history, economic history, political history, war and peace, cultural formations, and religion
  • Comparative history—a comparative account, grounded in a particular set of questions, of the similarities and contrasts of related institutions or circumstances in separated contexts. E.g. states, economic institutions, patterns of agriculture, property systems, bureaucracies. The objective is to discover causal regularities, test existing social theories, and formulate new social theories
  • World history—accounts of the major civilizations of the world and their histories of internal development and inter-related contact and development
The choice of scale is always pertinent in historical analysis. And in many instances, I believe that the most interesting analysis takes place at the meso-level. At this level we get explanations that have a great deal of power and breadth, and yet that are also closely tied to the concrete historical experience of the subject matter.