7 minute read

Comparative Analysis

General Strategies Of Comparative Methods

Comparative methods have been used for three types of goals: the construction of inferential histories, the development of typologies, and the explication of generalized processes (Peel 1987). Theories based on inferential histories dominated the formation of the social sciences until the early twentieth century, while the development of typologies and analyses of processes are now the predominate comparative strategies.

Natural histories of society. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries scholars compared institutions and practices from many societies to construct evolutionary accounts of the origin of civilization, culture, and society. Contemporary primitive societies gave these theorists evidence of earlier social forms. Following the natural sciences' histories of geological formations and biological evolution, widely influential theorists, including Comte, Friedrich Engles (1965 [1846]), Lewis Henry Morgan (1870, 1877), Karl Marx, Herbert Spencer (1898), Max Mueller (1909), James Frazer (1907), and Edward Tylor (1889, 1903), each constructed an historical narrative that traced the emergence of human civilization from ancient, primitive societies into complex and sophisticated civilizations of Europe. They proposed a variety of developmental stages, with characteristic types of social organization, economic activity, and religious practices, that all societies necessarily passed though during their evolution. They shared the belief that the nuclear family was the precursor of more complex forms of social relations such as the clan, tribe, city, and nation-state.

Multi-linear evolutionist and diffusionist theories. A second wave of historical comparativists followed in the early twentieth century. Rather than constructing a single history of human culture or civilization, these scholars attempted to explain the emergence of particular cultures and the historical diffusion of cultural traits. Commonalities and differences among cultures were explained as either independent inventions of social forms, artifacts, and beliefs, or taken to have diffused from a single point of origin. The several different schools of diffusionists preferred to believe that invention was infrequent, so consequently they developed comparative methods to infer relationships among cultural traits and infer their sources. British anthropologists Alfred Haddon (1895) and W. H. R. Rivers (1914) came to the conclusion, based on their research in Melanesia, that social change was the product of migration and culture contact. Taken further, G. Elliott Smith (1928) and W. J. Perry (1923) contended that Egypt was the root of Western European civilization and that culture diffused to ancient Europe as the result of culture contact and migration. A similar approach was developed in Germany and Austria under the tutelage of Fritz Graebner (1903) and Wilhelm Schmidt, who postulated the existence of Kulturekreise, culture centers, presumably in central Asia, from which archetypical cultural items were spread.

The German diffusionists' methodology and conclusions were inspired by the comparative method that linguists including William Jones (1799), Franz Bopp (1967 [1816]), and Jakob Grimm (1967 [1893]) used to identify historically related Romance and Germanic language families. These linguists inferred the previous existence of a common mother-language, Proto-Indo-European, from the systemic variation in sound systems among these languages and Sanskrit.

Criticisms of the historical comparative methods concern the units of analysis used for comparison including similarity and diversity among the societies studied, the comparability of the data used, and the kinds of generalizations that are possible given the nature of the data. Furthermore the inferential histories paid little heed to the contextual factors that molded the particular institutions that they examined.

The historical comparativists and the diffusionists' comparative methods and research suffered several weaknesses. They were unable to adequately respond to Francis Galton's criticism in the discussion that followed Tylor's address to the Royal Anthropological Institute (Tylor 1899) that, if data were gathered from neighboring groups, it would be impossible to determine if similarities resulted from a common history or arose independently from common functions. Questions were also raised about the ability to establish social rules based on historically contingent phenomena. In addition, the inferences they made were based on data that was often gathered unsystematically. Most significantly these theories seemed increasingly less credible as researchers had greater contact with people in the societies they attempted to explain. Diffusionist theories lost currency after World War II with the rise of theories designed to identify social laws rather than cultural origins. Though the diffusionists' theories were largely discredited as inadequately supported by historical data, the explorer Thor Heyerdahl (1952) kept them alive with his attempts to demonstrate the possibility of ancient transoceanic migrations.

Comparison and social laws. Three different approaches to comparative studies superceded the inferential histories of the evolutionists and diffusionists and established the parameters for anthropological and sociological comparison for the twentieth-century. The German-American anthropologist Franz Boas ([1896] 1940) decried the "conjectural history" of the diffusionists' comparative method, in favor of comprehensive ethnographic descriptions that might reveal the "uniform laws that govern the human mind" (p. 271). Boas directed the efforts of the American Bureau of Ethnology to document the many cultures and languages of the native peoples of North America. His goal was to identify and classify the external (environmental) and internal (psychological) factors that shape the expression of these fundamental features of humans societies.

Durkheim's sociology echoed the analytical distinction between structure and process in Comte's positivist method. His goal was to identify structural forms or morphological units and their subtypes. He created a descriptive-analytic typology with analytical units that were examined synchronically for contextual variations. The goals of his sociological analysis were to identify social crucial facts that are elemental in every society and combined in different numbers and combinations into particular social species. He contended that "societies are only different combinations of the same original society" (Durkheim 1938, p. 86). In his studies of religion and social organization, he drew upon examples from Europe, North American native peoples, and Australia to identify elementary structures and their elaborations. Durkheim's study of social morphology laid the foundation for both British structure-functionalism in anthropology and Continental structuralist sociology and anthropology.

The failures of the conjectural histories of the diffusionists spurred a new and different approach to comparative studies in anthropology based primarily on Durkheim's social morphology and comparative sociology. British anthropologists A. R. Radcliffe-Brown (1951), Fred Eggan (1954), and Edward Evans-Pritchard (1963) severely criticized the historical comparativists and responded by developing more systematic, controlled comparisons that focused on systems of kinship, marriage and family.

Max Weber (1968) took a less positivist approach to social analysis and based his comparative method on the formulation of ideal types. He began with the recognition that the researcher plays an important role in framing research questions, identifying units of analysis, and selecting items for comparison. Rather than assuming an objective separation of the researcher and data, he constructed ideal types, or analytical models that did not confuse the researcher's conceptualization of the phenomena with the phenomena itself. These types enabled him to investigate the phenomena from an acknowledged starting point and interrogate other aspects of the object during analysis. He employed ideal types in his comparative studies of the relationship between economy and religion in Protestant Northern and Catholic southern Europe, the differences between charismatic and bureaucratic forms of leadership in Europe and China, and religious practices in Europe, China, and India.

Clifford Geertz (1963, 1968) used ethnographic cases as real types for comparisons of social organization, economic systems, and educational systems, and paved the way for comparisons in interpretative anthropology and cultural studies.

A third response to the inadequacies of the historical comparative methods was to develop sample-based comparisons with ethnographic databases. George Murdock's Human Relations Area Files and accompanying Ethnographic Atlas were the most extensive attempt to identify cross-cultural correlations and make statistical generalizations (Murdock 1963; Murdock and Yale University Institute of Human Relations 1982). To this end, he cataloged existing ethnographic data from 10 percent of the world's cultures identified by the late 1930s. Murdock's approach floundered due to the difficulties of making correlations, identified by Galton, and its dependence upon existing data, gathered by others who did not use comparable research strategies or common definitions of phenomena.

Comparisons of processes. Comparative studies of social process have returned to some topics previously examined by classical evolutionists and the diffusionists, but with much more constraint and caution. Research on social and economic change, migration, and cultural contact have attempted to return a historical dimension to structural analyses. Edmund Leach's (1954) study of the dynamics of ethnic and political relations in highland Burma paved the way for the more complex formulations in the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's (1977) theory of social practice, and in Ulf Hannerz's (1992) analysis of creolization, or the synthesis of new cultural forms, under the pressures of culture contact and globalization.

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Theory & Types of FamiliesComparative Analysis - General Strategies Of Comparative Methods, Comparative Methods In The Study Of Kinship, The Family, And Marriage