Carlo Ginzburg on the Historian's Craft

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This week, the father of the modern microhistory and one of the godparents of modern cultural history in general spoke at the Institute for Advanced Study on the relationship between observers, actors, and language in the historian's craft.

Carlo Ginzburg will be familiar to most for his epoch-making 1976 study The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, which explains just what its title promises and is required reading in most history methods courses.

Connections to AmericanScience aren't immediately obvious, but the talk (a) dealt with some of the theoretical issues we've touched on before and (b) cast new light on how history borrowed from (sacked?) its cousin anthropology a half-century ago.

The title of his talk was "Our Words, and Theirs: A Reflection on the Historian’s Craft Today," and it began by noting what is both a blessing and a curse for history: that it is conducted in everyday language, in a vocabulary often shared with its actors.

Proceeding, as so many talks on the topic do, from Marc Bloch's posthumous M├ęthodologie Historique, Ginzburg highlighted Bloch's well-known debt to Durkheim's notion of conscience collective and its conscious correlate, "collective representation."

The conscience collective – the social psychology underlying society – determines both social and individual action, and is expressed everywhere – in language, in rituals, in institutions – as "collective representations," to which historians have access.

Enter anthropology. Actually, enter linguistics. Ginzburg reached back to Kenneth Pike and his midcentury coining of the terms "etic" and "emic," which map onto the issue of recovering the conscience collective in ways that should interest historians.

Both terms refer to observers' accounts: as Ginzburg put it, an "etic" account is a comparative one, the language of which isn't specific to any one culture, while an "emic" account either comes from or is familiar to (he was a bit unclear) a specific culture.

So far, this was familiar to many in the audience. What Ginzburg did that was new – at least to me – was to recast this dichotomy in terms of the questions historians ask of the past, and the answers they derive from texts as they pursue those questions.

Basically, historians can't escape their own times – they think in their own language and their perspective is always that of the "outsider." Anachronism is built into their pursuits. In this sense, our questions will always be "etic," at least to some extent.

Ginzburg didn't bemoan this – in fact, he insisted that we embrace it. What he suggested was that, if our questions are "etic," we should try for "emic" responses, always derived from the specificity of whatever culture it is to which we address those questions.

In part, this is an aspect of history's (or anthropology's) confused identity vis-a-vis objectivity and the scientific method. Ginzburg cited Bloch's reading of Claude Bernard, suggesting comparative history as a social-scientific offshoot of the experimental ideal.

It was a brilliant lecture. It provided a way to parse (and then parry) the charge of "anachronism" in history. It wasn't airtight – what is? – but Ginzburg's recasting of "etic" and "emic" as question and answer was lively take on the methods of cultural history.

There's a tension here – too anachronistic a question will be impossible to answer – but it can be a productive one. Accepting and posing "etic" questions, combined with a call for "emic" answers, is, for Ginzburg, the hermeneutic heart of the historian's craft.


"Let our questions be etic and our answers be emic" makes a pleasing mantra. Just say it out loud a few times.

But seriously, I do like this very nice little way of encapsulating the balance of present interest against faithfulness to the past.

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