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This essay is about the past, present, and future connections between two kinds of history: microhistory and Atlantic history. The first is a well-defined and long-standing label, perhaps not much in fashion today; the second is a somewhat inchoate emerging field and apparently a hot tag, to judge by its rapid rise to prominence in dissertation titles, symposia, and job descriptions. Micro-history is often associated with a particular style of presentation--the narrative exposition of a single event or a single life--and with a particular set of topics--cultural history, in particular the cultural history of those at the margins. Other works labeled microhistories offer dense reconstructions of the social history of circumscribed communities, tracing patterns in kinship, commerce, or governance in exquisite detail. What links such disparate kinds of inquiry is a shared methodological tactic. Microhistory reduces the scale of observation, often to the level of personal encounters or individual life histories. It does so not in search of sympathetic "human faces" to illustrate the impact of historical processes, but rather in order to challenge our understanding of the processes themselves, in "the belief that microscopic observation will reveal factors previously unobserved." (2) Meanwhile, the unwieldy collective of works tagged as Atlantic history coheres around a geographic claim, regarding the spatial scope of key historical processes from the sixteenth century to the present (in its maximalist chronology) or during the height of the transatlantic slave trade, from the seventeenth to mid-nineteenth centuries (the minimalist chronology). Atlantic historians argue that the density of commerce and travel linking ports in Europe, Africa, and the Americas in these eras made historical developments at each site profoundly dependent upon the others. To understand the causes and assess the consequences of change observed at one locale, we must consider events and patterns at the places most closely linked to it, as well as trends affecting the system as a whole. Atlantic history has also been characterized by other tendencies which may or may not be essential to it, depending on whom you ask: an eagerness to find actors or practices of African origin in places where traditional historiography had not marked their presence; an insistence on the centrality of slavery and the slave trade to historical developments in Europe or North America traditionally explained without reference to them; prominent attention to the unequal distribution of power across the Atlantic world; the conviction that even those most thoroughly subjugated by the system--for instance, those bought and sold within it--made their own history within its constraints.

March 22
Journal of Social History
The Gale Group, Inc., a Delaware corporation and an affiliate of Cengage Learning, Inc.

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