Serial, Microhistory, and the Perils of Historical Research

I’ve been listening to Serial again. Part of this is the spate of articles and interviews that attack (perhaps not persuasively) the foundations of Sarah Koenig’s research and reporting. Another reason is that, as someone in the midst of researching and writing a dissertation, I find Serial’s storytelling and depth of research very compelling and inspiring. At the same time, as a historian, the popular podcast has left me deeply troubled and uncomfortable with its final product.

I first listened to Serial during my long commute home for the winter holidays. One of the first things I appreciated, as I consumed in rapid succession episode after episode, was the openness of Koenig with the limits her research and reportage. Unlike with other major works of journalism, she allowed the seams to show in her work—the lingering questions, the gaps in knowledge and evidence, the problem of relying on memory. I particularly welcomed this methodological honesty because I constantly run into many of the same problems in my dissertation research.[1] On my second journey through the series, however, I found my attention drawn not to the ways in which, as Eric Rauchway puts it, Serial is a “dramatization of the historical process” but to the ways in which that dramatization masks some serious interpretative problems.

Namely, what exactly is Serial about?

On the surface Koenig’s reporting passes the nightmare question faced by all graduate students as they embark on their dissertation: “So what?” Hae Min Lee was murdered in Baltimore in 1999. Adnan Syed was convicted of that murder. Perhaps he is innocent, at the very least his trial raises some serious political and legal issues. The best thing that can come out of Serial’s smash success, and its accompanying Reddit feedback loop, is that Syed’s case will be seriously examined by the Maryland Appeals Court. So yes, Serial is about the murder of Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed’s life after his conviction for her murder.

But is that enough to justify a twelve-episode serialized podcast? By her own admission Koenig and her staff only uncovered a minimal amount of new evidence relating to the case. The interpretation that Syed is innocent is not original to the podcast. As she noted in the very first episode, for Koenig this was the case that “came to me.” Lee’s murder was not something entirely forgotten.

At its best moments Serial is a microhistory—of the same vein as famous and award winning works like Natalie Zemon Davis’s The Return of Martin Guerre, Patricia Cline Cohen’s The Murder of Helen Jewett, John Demos’s The Unredeemed Captive. What separates these works from Serial is that they are about so much more than their particular historical incident. To be sure Return of Martin Guerre is about the life and death of a famous impostor, The Murder of Helen Jewett is about slaying of a high-end prostitute, and yet each of these works is also about the nature of identity, gender and sexuality, print culture in the early American republic, nineteenth century New York, the clash between European and Native American values, and much more. Each historian narrates a compelling individual story but uses that story as window into broader developments.

Can the same be said about Serial?

There are many interesting broader themes that float around Serial. The first to come to mind is the setting of the lives of Hae Min Lee and Adnan Syed: late 1990s Baltimore. What was it like to be a first generation Korean or Pakistani American teenager in Maryland in 1999? What about the place of the Muslim Community in pre-9/11 Charm City? Details about 90s Baltimore are scattered throughout Koenig’s narrative—for example the description of the city’s Leakin Park, in episode three, as a place where “[w]hile you’re digging in Leakin Park to bury your body, you’re gonna find somebody else’s”—but never does the podcast stop to ask the key question: what was it about Baltimore’s cultural and economic situation that created the context which produced Lee’s murder?

The largest thematic hook in Serial is the criminal justice system, and to a lesser extent, its unhappy relation with racism. Adnan Syed’s conviction is the frame of the entire series—each episode opens, after the Audible advertisements, with Syed’s voice straight out of prison. The interpretive questions Sarah Koenig and her staff ask are legal ones. But one cannot help but wonder if even here, at the core of the mystery at the center of its narrative, Serial misses the forest for the trees.

Was Syed convicted because a racist criminal justice system was predisposed to accept him as the murderer, because of Muslim culture’s supposed fixation on masculine “honor” or other racialized garbage? Was Syed convicted because his defense attorney was dying and much more interested in milking her client’s family over fully pursuing Syed’s innocence? Is the reality a little bit of both? I walked away from the final episode without a clear sense of Koenig’s answers to these questions. In an era that faces tense and fraught debate over the overweening power of police and the racist implementation of justice in the United States, we need answers to those sorts of questions.

I don’t believe this lack of answers is because Serial was leaving it up to its audience to solve these questions for themselves. The problem is the way in which the crux of Koenig’s analysis focuses around the “character” of Adnan Syed. The surviving evidence, either because he is a sociopath or he was just too intoxicated that day to recall it correctly, cannot verify the way Syed remembers January 13, 1999. This is doubly the case if one, understandably, does not fully trust the shaky and inconsistent testimony of Jay Wilds.

This forces Koenig down the analytic rabbit hole of trying to hammer out exactly who Syed was in 1999. Does his high GPA make Syed incapable of murder? Does the fact that he once stole out of the mosque’s collection plate mark him as capable of strangling someone to death? This sort of interpretative cul-de-sac should be familiar to any researcher; it certainly is to me within my own dissertation research and writing. The problem for Koenig is this interpretive carousel but her refusal to get off it and move on to the bigger picture.

The way in which Koeing tells the story of Hae Min Lee’s murder and its consequences exacerbates these problems. The serialized nature of Serial is an analytic problem in and of itself.

Historians have, in recent years, been called to return the narrative form—as both a way to explain history more coherently and as an avenue to reach out to a general audience. The success of Serial certainly shows the appeal of narrative to a general audience. The podcast, however, also highlights some of the interpretative dangers of that storytelling form, particularly when it is serialized into bite-sized chunks.

The open secret of Serial is that it leans upon the tropes of crime fiction—from Sherlock Holmes to Law & Order—to draw the listener in. Half the appeal of the genre is the last minute reveal of the true killer.[2] Such a conclusion is impossible for Serial. It would be evil if Koeing uncovered evidence that exonerates Syed in October and did not report it until December. If she and her staff uncovered definitive evidence of Syed’s guilt then Serial would not exist, justice was done with Syed’s conviction. The cake is a lie, then. Each week the podcast must create the illusion that if you just tune in next you will get the clue that makes it all click. But that clue isn’t coming. At the end of Serial we’re left with the same questions we had at the beginning.

The serialization and, above all, the need to create cliffhangers causes Koeing to awkwardly chop up her narrative. Some of this is caused, of course, by her decision to offer her reportage in media res, with new sources coming forward as each episode is released. But that does not explain why it takes us until episode eight to get “[t]he deal with Jay” or why the life of Hae Min Lee slowly recedes from the narrative. Characters flitted in and out of the story in ways that I found difficult to track, even though I binge listened to the series.

All of this criticism is not meant to detract from Serial’s strengths. The podcast was, above all, entertaining and well produced.[3] Koeing presents her research in a compelling and forthright way. The best thing about Serial, as I noted at the beginning of this post, is the way the series is honest about the limits of the surviving evidence and the conclusions one can draw from it. I also agree with Koeing’s basic conclusion as laid out in the final episode: the jury should not have voted to convict Syed.[4] Again, the best thing that can come out of Serial is that investigation into Hae Min Lee’s murder is reopened.

Despite those strengths I remain frustrated by Serial. For all its strengths and popularity the podcast feels like a missed opportunity. For the quality of reporting and production the series is a failed microhistory. Perhaps it is too much to expect Sarah Koeing and her dedicated staff to fully connect the story and personages surrounding the tragic murder of Hae Min Lee to the broader story of Baltimore, much less race and criminal justice, in the late-twentieth century. I cannot help but feel that, at times, the broader story got away from its storyteller. That’s a peril that all researchers, myself very much included, face.


[1] For example: Why, St. Anne’s Parish, do you not consistently record the votes in vestry elections and parish business? Didn’t you know how important that would be to my project?

[2] It was the butler all along.

[3] Have you heard that haunting theme song?

[4] I am less convinced of Syed’s absolute innocence, however. Despite that, the lack of physical evidence and the holes in the state’s testimony create reasonable doubt.

12 responses

    • Thanks for the comment, Andrew.

      I go back and forth on this. Obviously it is a pretty classic ‘true crime’ story. But given the depth of Koenig’s research and reporting, it seems to me she wanted her podcast to be more than “This American Life” does true crime (True Detective for the NPR set). “Serial” plays around with some bigger themes, which brings it close to a microhistory. But, as I hope the post makes clear, I think it falls short.

      Thanks again for the comment.

      • Given that the producers of Serial weren’t trying to produce a microhistory for radio, isn’t it a bit unfair to critique them as such?

        Playing around with big themes does not close to a microhistory make.

        • I didn’t read it as an outright critique of the podcast itself, which he described as “entertaining, “well produced,” and “compelling,” i.e., it was excellent at what it was supposed to be. I think the point was summed up when he wrote that it feels like a “missed opportunity” and that, perhaps in the hands of historians, it could’ve been a microhistory.

          • Quoted from above, what is, I think, Roy’s main argument:

            “I find Serial’s storytelling and depth of research very compelling and inspiring. At the same time, as a historian, the popular podcast has left me deeply troubled and uncomfortable with its final product.”

            The rest of the article then reads as a critique of the historical method used (or not) in Serial.

            How many missed opportunities leave us troubled and uncomfortable?

            • Without baring too much of my psyche, even among friends, most of my missed opportunities leave me troubled and uncomfortable. How could they not? I missed those opportunities! They could have been awesome! The rest leave me wistful.

              Perhaps wishfulness was a better reaction to “Serial’s” shortcomings.

              My main argument, which maybe I obscured, is that for all its strengths I think “Serial” missed many chances to connect the story to big picture questions about race, justice, etc. in the late twentieth century. Koenig was grasping at these questions (at least in my reading) but the remained just out of reach (to me) by the last episode.

        • Thanks for continuing the discussion, Andrew.

          I wouldn’t describe it as unfair.* Perhaps my reading of “Serial” is influence by critiques like that of Eric Rauchway (see the link in the post) that links at least *some* what Koenig’s was trying with microhistory, as practiced by historians. There’s a lot going on in the series – straight reportage, personal anecdotage, microhistory, etc. I pulled out a keep of the elements of “Serial’s” analysis that I didn’t think did the interpretative work which I saw Koenig and her staff as attempting. I don’t think this ruined the series by any means but it did leave me feeling as if the story Koenig was trying to tell got away from her at certain points.

          *Unless we are going with perspective that all readings are at least somewhat unfair to their source material.

  1. Thanks for this enjoyable post. I’ve been obsessed with Serial since a few weeks after it began… so much so that I worry my progress in comprehensive exams reading has been slowed down by it.

    I’ve been thinking about how to historicize Serial for a while. While I think it can be done productively, I would have been very surprised if Koenig et al. had had made the interpretive moves you lay out so cogently in this post. Maybe we could think a bit more about what those would look like in practice. For the sake of simplicity, we could think of two of the moves most characteristic to microhistories as “deductive” and “inductive” inferences.

    If a microhistorian is operating deductively, she is taking what we know about a wider context and applying it to a particular case or example. In this case, I’m certain that Serial could have explored the geographic (Baltimore) and temporal (pre-9/11) contexts more thoroughly. Indeed, some of the commentary I’ve read online does explore this in interesting ways. But while most of the early American historians who read this blog can make use of such a deductive approach without worrying about the consequences, I would imagine it’s much more dangerous for journalists studying people who are still alive. If Koenig had devoted an episode to exploring, for instance, whether the politics of crime in 1999 Baltimore created unreasonable pressure on police and prosecutors to produce a guilty verdict (a possibility I think that most people who have enjoyed both The Wire and Serial have considered) then such reporting could be read as an accusation against those folks. Likewise, a more sustained exploration of anti-Muslim attitudes could come across as an attack on the jurors. Most people don’t like to be historicized. Koenig and her team have already received quite a bit of criticism already for what I consider to be a rather measured and fair approach to the story. I can’t imagine what kind of attacks they would face if she had implied that Adnan was innocent based on context rather than more direct kinds of evidence.

    The second kind of microhistorical move I’m imagining doesn’t work very well in this case either. If one was trying to move from the particular to the general in this case, I think that a lack of really conclusive material evidence would make that very shaky. Many classic microhistories do this by suggesting that the experience of a particular person or group or institution can tell us something important about their time, place, or social group. But without knowing what really happened on Jan. 13, 1999, it’s difficult to make that kind of move (unless it’s to point out something that’s hardly relevant to the case itself, such as the inescapable fact that American teenagers do stupid things all the time… but we already knew that).

    • Jordan, thank you very much for the wonderful comment.

      Your points are well taken and build on Andrew’s concern (above) that my criticism of “Serial” is unfair. I particularly love your (very wise) insight that “people don’t like to be historicized.”*

      That said I do wish that Koenig and her staff had, in particular, embraced the “deductive” microhistorical approach you lay out – despite the risks. Considering that Koenig seems to have come to the conclusion that, at the very least, Syed was improperly convicted there seems to be an obligation to fully pursue any interpretative avenue that is available. This is, of course, easy for me to say since I am not under the social, cultural, and political pressure that Koenig and her staff have found themselves under.

      Thanks again for your comment and good luck on your exams.

      *I’ve noticed that friends/family/people on the street aren’t particularly fond of me describing their behavior as coming out of their particular historical moment.

  2. I’m not convinced that the theme of Serial was “the criminal justice system,” per se, or the innocence or guilt of any single person. Rather it was an extended meditation on the nature of “truth” and “certainty” in the context of criminal justice. At least, that was the pay-off for me.

    You were rightly troubled by the end product (we all were), but I think that was the whole point: there are almost no certitudes in criminal cases, much as we crave them. As such, Serial is a much needed corrective to the mythologies of having “irrefutable proof,” whether of guilt (NCIS-style TV) or innocence. Reality is almost always more messy than that. This fact alone provides important background to issues like the use of preemptive lethal force by police (and others) who “know” (in a split second) that someone is “dangerous” or “guilty,” the use of the death penalty, etc.

    If the above is accurate, then Serial remains an excellent demonstration not only of the historical method, but also of what history (as a narrative-complicating discipline) can contribute to broader public policy discussions. History sometimes gives authoritative answers; but more often it pushes people to ask better questions.

    • Tim, thank you very much for the insightful comment.

      I absolutely agree that one of the key pay-offs is the series’s extended meditation on the difficulty of certainty in judicial proceedings, as well as the specifics of Lee’s murder. As I tried to make clear in my opening I think this is one of the best things about “Serial” is Koenig’s openness about these issues.

      I also agree that history sometimes does not give authoritative answers and certainly the case “Serial” centers around makes such things difficult. I believe, however, that Koenig’s excellent depth of reportage and research did lead her towards some authoritative answers about criminal justice in the modern US. Perhaps she didn’t develop these themes because of the reasons laid out in Jordan’s comment or, on the other hand, those I lay out in my post. Perhaps it was the nature of the project itself. Or something else.

      Thanks again for the comment!

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