dr. Sigurður
Gylfi
Magnússon

Biography and projects

Background

(Written in 1998)

I graduated with a BA. degree from the University of Iceland in 1984 with a major in history and a minor in philosophy. In 1987 I finished my MA degree in history at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, USA, and in 1993 I defended my doctural dissertation, receiving my Ph.D in history from the same institution.

My doctoral dissertation is called: "The Continuity of Everyday Life: Popular Culture in Iceland 1850-1940." It deals with popular culture in Iceland and traces how the general public influenced the growth and the formation of rural and urban areas in the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries. Two different cultural worlds are contrasted and an attempt is made to analyse how they affected each other, especially when people moved from rural areas to urban centers: when traditional ways of living mixed with more modern ones. Special attention is paid to the four different life stages which span the first three decades in people´s lives, i.e. infancy, first work experience, confirmation and marriage, and how people dealt with their everyday life experiences in each of these life stages. Although the overall everyday life experience is the subject matter of this research, the main focus is on people¹s attitudes and beliefs concerning work and education.

The conceptual framework of the dissertation required that a special attention be paid to popular culture in rural areas since one of the main goals of the study was to show how the cultural background of Icelandic peasant society was utilised in the fast growing urban areas in the twentieth century, and how it changed during the same time period. For that reason, the main focus of the study is on the nineteenth century peasant culture, with, however, a considerable comparison to twentieth century urban life.

After finishing my doctoral dissertation in 1993, I stayed on in the USA through the summer of 1994, teaching at Carnegie Mellon University. I returned home to Iceland at that point having been awarded a three year research grant by The Scientific Council of Iceland (later renamed The Icelandic Research Council) for the continuation of my work. My research is focussed not only on the subject matter of Icelandic history but also on the methodological issues concerning personal documents (first person sources) and their value for an historical inquary. My research is thus a continuation of my work for my doctoral thesis but, at the same time, with a heavier focus on the individual and his or her role in the society, expecially in connection with the struggles of everyday life. This approach has required various theoretical considerations, especially concerning the interconnection between man, nature, and society. My research projects have therefore developed into more of a methodological and theoretical experiment than I had planned at the beginning, where the focus was on the possibilities and the limitations of personal documents.

This need for theoretical and methodological foundations for the study of popular culture is responsible for the direction which my research has taken. It became apparent when I began to focus on the ordinary individual and his or her experience in the society that the available sources were both incomplete and limited in number. In most cases they simply did not exist. This is one of the reasons that historians have paid little or no attention to the historical importance of these sources. It became vital, therefore, for me to investigate the extent of these sources and to determine how they could possibly be used constructively in historical inquiry. This was, I felt, extremely important, since I believe not only that the history of the nineteenth and the twentieth centuries have not been studied from this angle, but also that we would gain a much fuller understanding of the social development of this time period from a study of this type. My energy and interest has, for this reason, been turned towards developing a methodology which is capable of directing a research which is based on the use of personal documents.

The foundations for this work have already been laid and I am hoping for the opportunity to develop it further in the future so that I can link together different types of personal sources and make full use of their strengths. Ultimately, using these sources, I hope to be able to publish a number of monographs which cover all the different aspects of Icelandic popular culture. Before I go into a more detailed description of my research plan I would like to provide a wider perspective on my studies so that the continuity between my work in the past and my work in the future becomes more clear.

It could be argued that my academic work has been developing in a very definite direction, a direction which it took very early during my BA studies at the University of Iceland. One could say, in essence, that this development has been marked by an attempt to get closer to the people about whom we know so little, those who are left out of most of our records and to whom the profession of history has paid minimum attention, i.e. the subjective experience og ordinary people. I feel that I have made some progress in this direction, and that I was able in my first book, Modes of Living in Reykjavík 1930-1940 (Lífshættir í Reykjavík 1930-1940), to break new ground in Icelandic historiography. This book was an expanded and revised version of my BA thesis, published by the University Press. In that work I tried to compare the recollected experiences of five families from different social classes (using oral interviews amont other sources), with statistics about the thirties concerning unemployment, housing, wages, and the overall economic situation during the Great Depression in Iceland. Since then I have further developed my ideas in this direction, especially in my work for my doctoral dissertation, where I worked with different source material and longer period of time.

The research I did in connection with my doctoral dissertation is of continuing use to me, especially as I was only able to include a part of it in the thesis itself. A number of my recent articles, which have been published in professional journals in Iceland and in the USA, have been related to the approach I took there. In these articles, I have taken specific topics from my dissertation and explored them more fully. The most recent ones include: death (""Death is a river, but life is a straw": Death in Nineteenth Century Iceland"), moral authority and the church ("Moral Models in the Nineteenth Century"), Icelandic popular culture ("Popular Culture in Iceland 1850-1940"), and children¹s experiences in the nineteenth century ("From Children´s Point of View: Childhood in Nineteenth Century Iceland"). All of these studies have in common that they make considerable use of autobiographies as an historical source. Additionally, many of these articles are experimental in nature, where the possibilities of the autobiography for historical research are being tested. I am, currently, working on a book, which deals theoretically with the autobiography as an historical source and the meaning of history in general in this postmodern age (Life and History). This work includes an annotated bibliography of over 200 autobiograpies.

My research for the past few years has also concentrated on other kinds of personal sources such as diaries ("I am 479 days younger than Nilli." Diaries and Daily Life of Halldór Jónsson from Miðdalsgröf"), personal letters (Education, Love and Grief), questionnaires from the Department of Ethnology ("Modern Fairy Tales? Gender Roles in Icelandic Society."; - "Questions and Answers: Documents from the Department of Ethnology."; ­ "Experimental analysis. Creating an Historical Source."), and, finally, oral history and interviews ( Modes of Living in Reykjavík 1930-1940.). All of these studies have been directed towards an inquiry into the possibilities which these sources have for historical research. They have been theoretical in nature but at the same time an attempt has been made to have some balance between theory and context. This is especially illustrated in the book Education, Love and Grief and in the article "I am 479 days younger than Nilli." It is because of this connection between my former research and my research of the last two or three years, that I am anxious to go one step further and work more systematically on my overall theoretical approach in cooperation with other scholars.

During the course of my latest research, especially when I was working on the book Education, Love and Grief it became clear that I have been working on the same problems with which those historians who have been labled micro-historians have been working. By making the individual, rather than formal institutions as has traditionally been done, the focal point, I have created problems which I have had difficulties solving: e.g. How can an individual be taken as representive of a larger group or unit? Is his or her story worth telling?

The approach of micro-history came, in some sense, to my rescue and directed my research into what I consider a very promising and intellectually stimulating path. The problem is that the field of micro-history, which has been developing for the last few decades, has become both complicated and technical. For this reason, I feel the need to be able to sit down and study micro-history systematically, with the guidance and help of a scholar who has been working in this field. The isolation here in Iceland has been overwhelming in this regard: there are only few scholars who know anything about the field of micro-history, yet the sources available to us in Iceland are extremely well suited for this type of historical research.

In the past few years I have been trying to read all the available studies which have been guided by micro-history along with my students at the University of Iceland. But I realise that if I am going to be able to master this approach for my own research I need to be in contact with other scholars who have been using it in their research.

Given my research in the past, which might be labeled "history from below", and the direction I hope to take in the future with the micro-historical approach, I am convinced that the German and American historiography can provide me with an important and a necessary theoretical framwork. I am also certain that it will help me dealing with improtant historical questions which need to be dealt with in an Iceland context. Germany, for the last few years, has been the stage of intense dialogue; a dialouge which has no parallel elsewhere in the world. It focused on everyday life history or Alltagsgeschichte as it is called in Germany, and dealt with the history and the experience of ordinary people. This approach to history is very much connected with "history from below" as it is practiced in the English speaking world except it has much stronger theoretical foundation and scholars are constantly dealing with the importance, the meaning, and the possibilities of everyday life experience. Alltagsgeschichte has both political and intellectual roots in Germany and together it has ceated an unusually dynamic atmosphere in terms of exchange between academia and grass roots historians.

"History from below", as it is practiced in the English speeking world, became early on both connected with demography and sociology and used the methology which was already established within these disciplines, putting aside the improtance of creating one for its own use. My own experince, once I was writing my doctural dissertation, tought me how pressing it was for those who relied mostly on qualitative sources to have methodology which would be able to direct their research. But thoes methodes did not exsist within the English speeking world except if your approach was quantitative by nature as most of these studies were. I, for example, ended up applying a demograpic analytical tool, - a life-course analysis -, on sources which were in essence qualitative. The method, in my mind, greatly limeted the scope and the depth of the inquiry.

In Germany, Alltagsgeschichte started out as a grassroots movement, mainly focusing on the everyday life in Germany under the Nazi regime. The outcome was a massive political debate about culture, history, society, and politices. Early on, professional historians became part of the overall discourse and provided it both with a strong conceptual and theoretical framework which gave Alltagsgeschichte the weight and strength to grow and develope into a mature sub-discabline. Risking an oversimplification, one can argue, that Alltagsgeschichte is a mixture of "history from below" as it is practiced in the USA and Europe, micro-history as it is practiced in Italy and elsewhere in the West (using anthropological and ethnographical methods), and last but not least, it draws its stength from the traditional German intellectual history. This approach became the history of everyday life, - Alltagsgeschichte.

I belief that micro-history and Alltagsgeschichte will give me an unusual opportunity to work on my own theoretical framework, because it is situated on an intellectual crossroads, where different traditions come together, some which I am very familiar with, but others are still foreign to me. For this reason, I am planing to continue to study micro-history and Alltagsgeschichte as it has been practice in USA and Germany, using that comparism to build on my own experience, and make an attempt to deal with source material which has been totally neglected in Icelandic historiography.

Research Plan in 1998

I. Historiography and methology.

  • 1. To attempt to study as much as possible the newest research in the fields of micro-history and Alltagsgeschichte, and get an opportunity to discuss it with other scholars abroud by networking on the internet. This is crucial since both of these fields are developing and a lot is to be learned by participating in a dialogue about the subject.
  • 2. To make a systematic comparism between Alltagsgeschichte as it is practiced in Germany, micro-history as it is practiced in Italy, and "history from below" as it is practiced in the English speeking world, and come up with a synthesis which would both serve as an analytical tool for my research in the future and sharpen the defination of social history which I am planing to deal with in an article for a professional journal in the USA.
  • 3. The main gool of this work would be to further the development of my own approach to micro-history and Alltagsgeschichte, which would take special notice of the extremely rich first person sources in Iceland. In other words, I would make an attempt to draw from the intellectual experience of German scholars and German historiography and applay it to Icelandic emperical data. The most important question which I would have to ask are:
    • A. What kind of source material has been used in the Alltagsgeschichte and how has it been applayed to the everyday life experience of ordinary people?
    • B. To what extent have historians used first person sources in their research and what is considered their stength and weaknesses?
    • C. How have historians connected the anthropological and ethnological approach to their studis of history? What are the connection between the theoretical approach of Alltagsgeschichte and micro-history interms of their use of anthropological and ethonlogical methods and models? How does "history from below" fit into that framwork?
    • D. How can first person sources best be used in micro-historical reseach? Or, in stead of reconstruct a text, using the methods of anthropology and ethnography with the intention of drawing out the subjective experience of the lower classes, is it possible to use first person sources as a substitute? If so, how, and what would be the real advantage?
    • E. How would a micro-historical approach best be applayed to a intensive study of a diary from the nineteenth century? Or a collections of letters?

II. Publications and future plans.
1. The general idea is to work on a theoretical paper which would explore the possibilities which Alltagsgeschichte and micro-history can give historians in the future. The main idea is to use the theoretical foundation from both of these approaches as they have been practiced in Germany along with what "history from below" has to offer and applay it to Icelandic source material and context. I have already discussed the idea of a paper like this with editors of two professional journals, who have shown some interest in the subject.

2. I am convinced that there is enormous work ahead in the area of personal documents and how they can be used for historical analysis, not only here in Iceland, but also in other parts of the world. Iceland is in the somewhat unusual position that the general public enjoyed universal literacy in spite of the total lack of infrastructures in the nineteenth century. For this reason, a lot of personal documents have survived from this time, documents which come from people who did not, traditionally, express their desires or world views in other peasant societies. This is extremely important for a historian who is working in the fields of social history, everyday life history and the history of mentality since these sources open up an opportunity to work on historical issues which we have, heretofore, only been able to wonder about at best. This is a new and exciting area in the field of history, but the need for a solid methodology is pressing and my hope is that I will get a chance to study the possibilities which these sources seem to offer.

Fulbright Scholar - Research Project in USA (spring 2002):

The Methods of Microhistory

Background

In this project "The Methods of Microhistory" I will attempt to fulfill three main goals: The first one is to master the historiography of microhistory and study the strengths and weaknesses of its approach. This I will do both by reading studies which have been published recently (older works I am already familiar with), and more importantly, I will get an opportunity to discuss the methods of microhistory with colleagues who have been working within this area of historical scholarship.

Secondly, I am determined to further develop a microhistorical model which I have been working on for the last two years and have been calling "The Singularization of History". This experimental model attempts to give the methods of microhistory a chance to reach their full potential in the academic world. I will pay special attention to the use of personal documents in the development of microhistorical methods, and how they will be best put into use within this framework.

Finally, I am planning to work on texts which will eventually be published both in Iceland and the USA and will be the results of the theoretical framework of "The Singularization of History" model. This extended visit will give me the opportunity to combine writing and the dialogue with scholars at Carnegie Mellon University and elsewhere for my project.

Some discussion of the evolution of microhistory is in order here. As a field of study, it has developed over the past twenty years in most of Europe and North America. However, it took shape somewhat earlier in Italy around the journal Quaderni Storici, in the hands of historians such as Carlo Ginzburg, Giovanni Levi, Edvardo Grendi, Edward Muir and Guido Ruggiero, to name a few.
Microhistory emerged in Italy in response to dominant trends in the French Annales-school. Both schools of thought shared the agenda of bringing common people, the lost people of Europe, into history. However, they disagreed as to how best to bring this about. Microhistorians did not accept that the best way to come to grips with popular culture was though quantitative methods and historical demography. They instead focused on in-depth investigations of smaller units­individuals, families, small communities or just a single event which might or might not be of any importance. These sort of phenomenon reveal the diversity within the larger unit. Individual subjectivity takes on significance as the most informative source on the motives underlying decisions and actions in microhistorical research. In a recent publication, I have discussed thoroughly the development within the field of microhistory ("Social History Now and Then" in Microhistory ­ Conflicting Paths; "The Singularization of History"in Pieces and Molds. About Microhistory and Lost Time. Co-authorship with Carlo Ginzburg and David Olafsson) and connected it with different stages of history writing in countries like Italy and Germany (where Alltagsgegeschichte (everyday life history) developed and which is strongly connected with the methods of microhistory), and at last how it took shape in the English speaking world in the form of the "the New Cultural History".

All of these conceptual frameworks have greatly contributed to the development of microhistory as it is known today in the world of the humanities and social sciences.

Objectives

This project draws strength from the different approaches to microhistory, mentioned above and develops a synthesis which would both serve as an analytical tool for my research on this project and in the future. My main goal is to sharpen the definition of  microhistory. To do that, I will take the methods of microhistory one step further and develop the theoretical and conceptual framework of "The Singularization of History". This new approach is a radical turn from conventional scholarship in social history and microhistory, one which refuses to accept the connections between micro and macro. The macro perspective is seen as static and artificial which has little or noting to do with the genuine textures of life in past times.

I will use my previous work on microhistorical research (like the one already mentioned and the monographs Education, Love and Grief. Microhistorical Analysis of the 19th and the 20th Century Peasant Society in Iceland. Studia Historica 13; The Sound of Divine Revelation. A Diary, Autobiography, Letters and Poems of Magnus Hj. Magnusson. Anthology from Icelandic Popular Culture 2) to devise a new understanding of the possibilities which the microhistorical approach has to offer; how it will best deal with complicated historical problems in modern research in the future. This understanding will not only be based on my former work but also on the strength and the weaknesses of the models which historians in Italy, Germany, and the English speaking world have given the microhistorical framework.

I will not be able to bring this intellectual synthesis about and accomplish the objectives of this project unless I will have the opportunity and access to the opinions of scholars who have been working on similar problems and are willing to share their opinions with me. I believe that I will find an important group of scholars at academic institutions in the USA who will be enthusiastic to participate in my experiment.

Given that these necessary requirements will be fulfilled, I am certain that I will be able to develop the idea of "The Singularization of History" into a sound methodological model which will hopefully add considerable flavor to the interesting texture of microhistorical research already established.

Methodology

"The Singularization of History" process takes a resolute stance against "grand narratives" such as the modernization theory and Marxist theories (to name a few) on the grounds that they are constructions which, when invoked, almost inevitably mold historical research in their own image. Thus, research so informed yields a product unrelated to knowledge of the past.

As an alternative to accepting the guidance of grand narratives, I have been advancing "The Singularization of History" approach. (In addition to the book Pieces and Molds, I have dealt with this model in an forthcoming paper called: "The Contours of Social History Š" which will be published in Denmark in the beginning of next year in a book that focuses on new theories in history).Taking this approach involves looking for meaning within the events and objects of research, rather than in larger contexts, scrutinizing their details and nuances.

In short, I encourage historians to cut the umbilical cord that ties them to "grand historical narratives", but I am aware that this is not an easy task, since the "grand narratives" inform the conventional codes of scientific research. In order to circumvent these narratives, I suggest a procedure, which I call "historicalization" whereby a work is 1) estimated of its own merit; 2) compared to other works in the same field of inquiry; and 3) placed in a larger context of general ideas about the development of societies, constructed by "grand narratives" (minimum emphasis is put on this third stage). "Historcalization" is thus a methodology of  "the Singularization" process of historical study, designed to promote its credibility in general scholarship, within which it must necessarily vie for influence. So, this model attempts to criticize the conventional theoretical framework of microhistorical research and at the same time intends to redefine the aims and parameters of microhistory in order for it to achieve its full potential.

However, it must be kept in mind that this is an early of an emerging methodology. Only the first steps have been taken towards this new methodological approach and many unresolved problems need to be sorted out. That, I am firmly convinced, will not be possible without a strong collegial partnership. Unfortunately, with regard to microhistory, that sort of interaction is hard to come by in Iceland.

Therefore, my plan is to work with scholars from USA, exchanging ideas and reading on microhistory.  My plan is to present them and others with the model of "the singularization" process and make sure that it will be introduced in print both in the USA and Iceland.

My research plan for the project "the Methods of Microhistory":
1. To attempt to study as much as possible the newest research in the fields of microhistory, Œthe New Cultural History" and Alltagsgeschichte, and get the opportunity to discuss it with other scholars and by networking on the internet. This is crucial since all of these fields are developing and a lot may be learned by participating in a dialogue about the subject.
2. To make a systematic comparison between microhistory as it is practiced in Italy, "the New Cultural History" as it is practiced in the English speaking world, and Alltagsgeschichte as it is practiced in Germany, and come up with a synthesis which would both serve as an analytical tool for my research in the future and sharpen the definition of "the Singularization" process of history.
3. The main goal of this project is to further the development of my own approach to microhistory, taking special notice of the extremely rich first person sources in Iceland. In other words, I would make an attempt to draw from the intellectual experience of scholars around the globe and apply it to Icelandic empirical data. The most important questions which I would have to ask are:
A. To what extent have microhistorians used first person sources in their research and what are considered their strengths and weaknesses?
B. What kind of source material has been used in the Alltagsgeschichte and how has it been applied to the everyday life experience of ordinary people?
C. How have historians applied the anthropological and ethnological approaches to their studies of history? What are the connections between the theoretical approach of microhistory, "the New Cultural History" and Alltagsgeschichte in terms of their use of anthropological and ethnological methods and models?
D. Instead of reconstructing a text using the methods of anthropology and ethnography with the intention of drawing out the subjective experience of the general public of all classes, is it possible to use first person sources as a substitute? If so, what would be the real advantages of such an approach?
E. How would a microhistorical approach best be applied to a intensive study of a diaries from the eighteenth, the nineteenth, and the twentieth centuries, or a collections of letters from the same time period? How would it be possible to use this source material when "the Singularization" model will be applied to some specific historical circumstances?
4. Is "the Singularization" model applicable with the use of the methods of anthropology and ethnography and how would it then be mobilized?
5. Is it possible to shy away from "grand narratives" when historical studies are conducted and how can it be done prudently?

Significance

During my recent research, especially when I was working on the book Education, Love and Grief,  it became clear that I had been working on the same problems as microhistorians. By making the individual the focal point, rather than formal institutions as has traditionally been done, I created problems which I have had difficulty solving: e.g. How can an individual be taken as representative of a larger group or unit? Are their stories worth telling and what relevance do they have to our understanding of history?
 The approach of microhistory came, in some sense, to my rescue and History". They share a strong theoretical foundation and scholars are constantly dealing with the importance, the meaning, and the possibilities of the everyday life experience. Alltagsgeschichte has both political and intellectual roots in Germany and together it has caused an unusually dynamic atmosphere in terms of exchange between academia and grass roots historians.

Risking an oversimplification, one can argue, that Alltagsgeschichte is a mixture of "the New Cultural History" as it is practiced in the USA and Europe, micro-history as it is practiced in Italy and elsewhere in the West (using anthropological and ethnographical methods), and last but not least, it draws its strength from the traditional German intellectual history. This approach became the history of everyday life,­Alltagsgeschichte.

Even though microhistory is built on a strong international foundation, I find its development somewhat disappointing. One can argue that it has been considered a "cool" addition to traditional social historical research but not a serious contribution. In my mind, the good news is that the field of microhistory is very much in the making and has been developing quickly in the past few years, under strong influences of the postmodern condition. It is, in this sense, an exciting field of inquiry which I am convinced will alter a great deal how we will think about the workings of historical processes. That still depends on whether scholars have the courage to face the problems underlying the practice of social history. "The Singularization" model is exactly an attempt to do that.

I have already written extensively on the methodology of microhistory but find my self constantly discovering new angles of its methods and approaches which I have not been familiar with before. This does not come as a surprise since this field of research has been growing very fast, but, also, because I have been, to some extent, isolated from the epicenters of historical scholarship. The Fulbright grant will give me an opportunity to further my theoretical framework, as it has been described above, and become a participant in a fast growing field of historical methodology. In the context of my own country, Iceland, I do think that microhistorical research will open up a new and exciting opportunity to look into specific historical problems in Icelandic history and apply the method to the rich first person sources which have been collected in Iceland over the years.   

SHORTCUTS:
Background
Research plan 1998
Fulbright Scholar

LINKS:
microhistory.org
The Reykjavík Academy
Íslensk heimasíða
© 2006 - Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon