"Big" History Versus "Little" History

I've just finished reviewing Gregory Clark's A Farewell to Alms for The Freeman. (Coming soon, as I know you can't wait to read it.) One thing Clark does, in common with Jared Diamond and other "big picture" historians, is to disparage "narrative" historians for their focus on particulars and individuals, instead of, say, total national GDP growth, or sweeping technological changes.

Now, the "broad sweep" approach to explaining history is fine, as far as it goes. The mistake these fellows make is that they think it can somehow be a replacement for the detailed picture. It's as if, every day, when one of them comes home from the office and the wife asks, "What did you do today honey?" he answers, "Well, I metabolized fats, proteins, and carbohydrates, and used the resulting energy to generate neuro-muscular activity." Not doubting that he did do that, nevertheless she insists that really wasn't the answer she was after. When she does, he berates her for focusing on the specific details of life, instead of seeing the big picture.

There is a place for both types of answer. It all depends on what the question was.


  1. I realize I often criticize you Gene--it's my only hobby--but, umm, isn't your analogy backwards?

  2. Most of my life is backwards, but what do you mean in this instance?

  3. OK, suppose I hadn't heard the context. You come up and say, "Bob, there was this guy who told his wife, 'I metabolized fats and transferred electric charges today.' Now Bob, in fact that day at the office he got fired! What's your reaction?"

    I would say that this guy is an idiot, for though he made true statements concerning irrelevant minutiae, he skipped the big picture of what happened that day.

    I.e., your example would lead me to side with the historians you are trying to criticize.

    The only way to make your analogy work, is to say that you think the "big picture" really is all about metabolizing fats etc., whereas getting fired is just some minor detail.

  4. No, it's not "big picture" versus "small picture" that's the real distinction between Diamond/Clark and "real" historians, but abstract/specific. The "metabolim" view is very abstract, whereas "I went to the dry cleaners on Court St. and got my serge sports jacket" is very specific.

  5. Oh, and yes, I write "big picture" in the post, but in quotes -- that's what clark and Diamond would say they see, but they are wrong -- they look at a deliberately abstract picture, whereas the historian strives towards a concrete one. Bob, you're looking at it in terms of what's important, but that's orthogonal to my point.

  6. No, it's not "big picture" versus "small picture" that's the real distinction between Diamond/Clark and "real" historians, but abstract/specific.

    My mistake. I was misled by your title, "'Big' History versus 'Little' History," and your characterization of Diamond as a "'big picture' historian."

    My mistake was further reinforced when you explained your analogy this way:

    When [the wife complains about the answer], he berates her for focusing on the specific details of life, instead of seeing the big picture.

  7. Yes, Bob -- if you note, that's the "big picture" guy talking -- he thinks his abstraction is the "big picture." And do you see those scare quotes around "Big" and "Little" in the title? They were there for a reason!

  8. Well OK, I guess your post makes a lot more sense now. But I wish you had had your hypothetical guy pick an abstract description that didn't focus on tiny little processes. That was a very confusing way to showcase a "big picture" explanation, I think.

  9. Brian N.6:32 AM

    The ultimate macro history:

    "Some shit happened."

    I'm sure that's broad enough! Anyone who tries to write about history without discussing people is as bad as those who discuss economics outside the parameters set by the consideration of acting individuals.

  10. Bob, you're right that I could have thought this out more. But maybe my "bad" example turned out to be good, since it forced me to clarify and you to push me for the distinction I was really after -- if I had really chosen a "big picture" example then the confusion would have remained.

  11. "Some shit happened" is freighted with deep, deep meaning: far from being vacuous, it implies a universe containing intelligent observers as well as change.

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