Margins and Monsters: How Some Micro Cases Lead to Macro Claims

How do micro cases lead us to surprising macro claims? Historians often say that the micro level casts light on the macro level. This metaphor of "casting light" suggests that the micro does not illuminate the macro straightforwardly; such light needs to be interpreted. In this essay, I propose and clarify six interpretive norms to guide micro-to-macro inferences. I focus on marginal groups and monsters. These are popular cases in social and cultural histories, and yet seem to be unpromising candidates for generalization. Marginal groups are dismissed by the majority as inferior or ill-fitting; their lives seem intelligible but negligible. Monsters, on the other hand, are somehow incomprehensible to society and treated as such. First, I show that, by looking at how a society identifies a marginal group and interacts with it, we can draw surprising inferences about that society's self-image and situation. By making sense of a monster's life, we can draw inferences about its society's mentality and intelligibility. These will contest our conception of a macro claim. Second, I identify four risks in making such inferences-and clarify how norms of coherence, challenge, restraint, connection, provocation, and contextualization can manage those risks. My strategy is to analyze two case studies, by Richard Cobb, about a band of violent bandits and a semi-literate provincial terrorist in revolutionary France. Published in 1972, these studies show Cobb to be an inventive and idiosyncratic historian, who created new angles for studying the micro level and complicated them with his autobiography. They illustrate how a historian's autobiographical, literary, and historiographical interests can mix into a risky, and often rewarding, style.