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Comparative Analysis - General Strategies Of Comparative Methods, Comparative Methods In The Study Of Kinship, The Family, And Marriage

comparison units illustrative comparisons


The comparative method has taken many forms since Augustus Comte first employed the concept in 1853 in his foundational Cours de philosophie positive. Subsequently a variety of comparative methods have emerged in the social sciences with different goals, units of comparison, and types of data that reflect a variety of theoretical assumptions and interests. Comparison has formed the core of anthropology, sociology and other social sciences, to the extent that Emile Durkheim (1938) viewed all sociological analysis as necessarily comparative. Comparative methods have been employed for both quantitative and qualitative studies of such diverse phenomena as language, political organization, economic relations, religion, myth, kinship, marriage, and the family.

Three strategies are used in comparative methodologies: illustrative comparison, complete or universe comparison, and sampled-based comparisons (Sarana 1975). They are distinguished by the units of comparison (including cultures, societies, regions, or communities) and the particular items or features used to compare the units. Societies as units can be compared by examining items or traits such as institutions or practices. Illustrative comparison is the most common form of comparative analysis and has been employed extensively by theorists from diverse camps. Items are used as examples to explain or exemplify phenomena found in different units. They are chosen for their illustrative value and not systematically selected to be statistically representative. Illustrative comparisons are used in historical reconstructions, and to support interpretations or general assertions. Ethnographic case studies are commonly justified as the source for illustrative comparisons.

The second strategy is complete or universe comparison, in which all elements of the domain within the study, defined geographically (e.g., global or regional) or topically (e.g., analytical concepts or institutions), form the units of comparison. Comprehensive regional ethnographic surveys and analyses of particular topics, such as the national population health indicators of the World Health Organization reports, employ this approach.

Finally, sampled comparison strategically delimits part of the whole, with the goal of selecting data that are statistically representative of the variations within the whole and are intended as the basis for statistical generalizations. While studies of this type abound in sociology and human geography, they are much less common in anthropology. Within anthropology, the most widely known example is the George Murdock's Human Relations Area Files.

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