History and Microhistory

Ever since reading Andrew Popp’s ‘The Broken Cotton Speculator’ I have been keen to use the approach of microhistory and I recently got my chance.[1] I took the moment Robbie Fowler lifted his Liverpool top to reveal a t-shirt with a message of support for 500 sacked dock workers in a European Cup Winners Cup match on the 20th March 1997 as my focal point. I wanted to move this between multiple contexts to demonstrate that the moment had a number of meanings to different groups in society. Although I understood what went into the top and its meanings, structuring this essay was extremely difficult.

The problems with structure arose as soon as I situated the top as a reaction to the forces of neoliberalism, deindustrialisation and globalisation (three powerful processes with masses of theory and debate attached to them).[2] Not only did I have to delve into this but I had to look into local structures of masculinity and class amongst dock workers and football fans. The former were fighting for their jobs in the face of deindustrialisation, the latter were in crisis as the corporatisation of football clubs turned fans into consumers in order to boost profits. The final ingredient was the nature of Liverpool itself and a notion of exceptionalism discussed by authors such as John Belchem and Brian Marren.[3] At the centre of the explosion was just one t-shirt, everything overlapped and untangling the webs was not an easy task- I am still not convinced that I did it justice.

I settled on dividing my analysis in two. The first half began with a brief discussion of the political and economic structure in the 1990s, then I looked into class, masculinity and football and the final section discussed a notion of Liverpool exceptionalism. This clearly outlined the main normative systems governing the meaning of the t-shirt before I moved on to the second half of the analysis which moved the t-shirt between these to demonstrate the interaction between agency and structure in creating meaning. I found myself reading about Calvin Klein in the 1990s (the dockers t-shirt borrowed the ‘CK’ logo), how all-seated stadiums undermined a traditional sense of masculinity at football matches and the influence Irish immigrants had on Liverpool’s culture.

Throughout this piece of research I truly realised the importance of the historian’s choices in writing history. I could have used the t-shirt to discuss fashion trends and ‘culture jamming’, I could have slotted it into the history of football regulation and I could have used it to demonstrate how Liverpool developed a unique sense of separateness from the rest of mainland Britain.[4] Discovering meaning in history depends just as much on the historian’s context as it does the historical context. The reason I struggled to write this essay was because I was focusing on uncovering as many different contexts as possible to produce a piece of microhistory. This differed to my usual approach to research in which I have already narrowed down the historian’s context to class, gender and emotions at work.

I must remember to always approach sources with an open mind, ready to accept that all social action is the result of ‘constant negotiation, manipulation, choices and decisions in the face of a normative reality which, though pervasive, nevertheless offers many possibilities for personal interpretations and freedoms’.[5] I also must also remember not to choose such a large topic for a 3000 word assignment.

[1] A. Popp, ‘The Broken Cotton Speculator’, History Workshop Journal, 78 (2014), pp. 133-156.
[2] I had to tackle the agency/structure debate in terms of Marxist and Foucauldian perspectives whilst outlining what each process entailed. For theoretical discussions see: P. Anderson, ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, New Left Review, 1.23 (1964), pp. 33-50; E. P. Thompson, ‘The Peculiarities of the English’ (1965). Available from: https://www.marxists.org/archive/thompson-ep/1965/english.htm [accessed: 11th December 2016]; M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality I: The Will to Knowledge, trans R. Hurley (London: Penguin Books, 1978), pp. 92-102 and R. Gagnier, Subjectivities: A History of Self-Representation in Britain 1832-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 8-14. For definitions of the three processes see: J. Tomlinson, ‘De-industrialisation not Decline: A New Meta-narrative for Post-war British History’, Twentieth Century British History, 27.1 (2016), pp. 76-99; C. Fuchs, ‘Neoliberalism in Britain: From Thatcherism to Cameronism’, Triple C, 14.1 (2016), pp. 163-188 and R. Hine and P. Wright, ‘Trade With Low Wage Economies: Employment and Productivity in UK Manufacturing’, Economic Journal, 108 (1998), pp. 1500-1510.
[3] J. Belchem, Merseypride: Essays in Liverpool Exceptionalism (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006) and B. Marren, We Shall Not Be Moved: How Liverpool’s Working Class Fought Redundancies, Closures and Cuts in the Age of Thatcher (Manchester: Manchester University press, 2016)
[4] ‘Culture jamming’ is covered brilliantly in N. Klein, No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs, 10th anniversary ed. (London: Fourth Estate, 2010), p. 281.
[5] G. Levi, ‘On Microhistory’, in P. Burke (ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), p. 94.