There are many, many schools of historiography, and until recently – until the last fifteen years or so, none of them were concerned with relating the detailed life of individuals not at the center of great narratives. There’s been a raft of brilliant work in biography and analysis about the famous. But little or nothing about the humble, unless the story is didactic, and the subject an examplar.
This has to do with the major schools of historical philosophy and writing. When Thomas Carlyle wrote the history of the French Revolution, he wrote the biography of Napoleon – yet another nod to the triumphalist, personality-focused school. Robert Graves’ great uncle Leopold von Ranke, a teacher at the University of Berlin (today Humboldt University) for over sixty five years, from 1825 to 1886, is credited with establishing modern historical analytical method. As Gordon Craig relates:
In Ranke’s view of history – as in that of such historians of the first part of the century as Niebuhr, Dahlmann, and Droysen – power and the state played a major role. The unification movement strengthened this tendency, and research and teaching in the history of the modern period particularly was dominated by political historians.
Economic historians have traditionally drawn their inspiration from Marx and Engels, if not in in philosophic bent than certainly in analytical method. Thorsten Veblen, Max Weber, Georg Simmel, all of them inaugurated schools of analysis based on sociological rules-of-thumb. The history of ideas is marked by the staggering generalities which observers and critics impute to the cosmos wherein ideas qua ideas reside. All of these schools, and their modern descendents (because all historical writing derives from these antecedants), deal with human phenomena in the aggregate, in the mass. The sums of complexity are bound up in the reducible identities of nameable token objects: individuals at the forefront of identifiable forces working inside entities that might be systematically reduced according fixed criteria. When I speak of the German Revolution of 1918-1919, everyone in the know is instantly able to recognize mentions of Kurt Eisner, Ernst von Salomon, Philip Scheidemann, the MSPD, Hindenburg, Weimar, the Spartacists, et cetera, because these referents are significant symbologically. They have always been imputed with narrative power – they are the stars of stories. These stories have authority, because they have been derived in the proper manner through which all history is legitimated. I can talk about Kurt Eisner, the Bavarian Socialist Republic, and Eisner’s murder, the Count Arco Valley, and we see the stories of Socialism, Nationalism, Counterrevolution, and Romantic Revolutionism. It explains all so very much with no obvious base of explanation at all, when the democratic principles are applied to the problem. The reason why is simple: aside from the few individuals who have contact with those whom the historical lens has identified as personally significant, the stories of the great and powerful, the notorious, are reduced to nothing but morality plays. What does the biography of, say, Emile Zola have to do with the overwhelming majority of literate and illiterate Frenchmen, aside from the significant force (J’accuse!) he played in the trial of Alfred Dreyfus?
History (aside from the tired, and trivially incorrect (since the situation is vastly improving) canard that it is history, not herstory) doesn’t, or rather didn’t, talk about ordinary life, because it was trivial, uninteresting, or important only insofar as it played into one of the great synthetic themes of one or another particular school.
Enter alltägsgeschichte: the history of everyday life.
It's quite old, as a viewpoint, really. The Gies'es wrote their famous series on Life in a Medieval blank throughout the 'forties, 'fifties, and 'sixties. There is Fernand Braudel's excellent Structures of Everyday Life, published in the mid-to-late 'fifties.
What is alltägsgeschichte?
It is the attempt to understand the past's cultural, economic, political and social phenomena through the considered examination and reduction of personal experience - the better to understand the reified and nominalized 'greater concepts' of the older movements in the terms of the individual, according to class, ethnic background, gender, religion, and occupation. Instead of tracking the movements of sugar cargoes across the Atlantic in the beginning of the seventeenth century (as might be done when studying the trans-Atlantic slave trade or the commercial revolution of the seventeenth century), the historian of everyday life searches for the degree of ubiquity of sugar consumption in the importing societies of Europe. The tally books and tariffs-entry of the portmasters and the customs-houses of European entrepots state very well what the quantity and quality of the transshipped sugar-loaves might be, but they can not be contextualized into the social reality of individuals. How did individuals consume that sugar? What were the products made from it? How likely was an individual to consume sugar as part of their diet, and how did that relate to geographic location and economic status? What about illnesses connected with sugar consumption? What about changes in cuisine? Emphasis on different food commodities can rapidly change the nature of an everyday diet, and thus, the demands of a consuming public on agriculture. What did people think about the sugar they ate, and how did they describe the experience? The alltägsgeschichter looks for answers to these questions in personal history. Instead of tax tallies of provincial grain production, the alltägsgeschichter looks to memorialists of particular grain markets, catalogues food-riots, studies the forensic investigation of the exhumed bodies of contemporaries, and reads the accounts of peasant festivals in the rural hinterlands
The focus of the effort is, as Lüdtke says,
to get as close to our human subjects as we can through micro-historical, Geertzian thick description and active identification and involvement in order to reconstruct past lives in full recognition of personal and group idiosyncratic self-perception and self-definition.Once the experience of hitherto ignored individuals can be delineated and understood, a much more nuanced and instructive approach can be made to answer the already asked Big Questions.
Alltagsgeschichte strives mightily to replace "History on a grand scale" with history on a trivial scale, these historians acknowledge the challenge of relating concrete personal situations to the "grand contours" of history.