Reflections by Rob Borofsky, Laura Nader,
Matt Candea, and Jonathan Friedman
This blog was originally published in the field sights section of the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s website .
It is published under a Creative Commons License of BY NC SA.
Comparison is basic to anthropology. It frames an understanding of ourselves and others. Yet anthropological comparison in the traditional sense—as involving two or more social units—seems to have gone out of fashion. This blog on comparison asks, why?
Cultural anthropology today seems to be heading in a diverse set of directions. This excites many anthropologists because it allows them to explore a range of personal interests. But the question is: Where does this ultimately leave the field? Following Yeats, we might wonder if, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold . . . what rough beast . . . slouches towards Bethlehem to be borne.”
The blog considers: To what degree can comparison help bind the field together? Can it open the field to new insights, new relationships, that go beyond specific case studies? Comparison, I would suggest, draws the attention of others beyond the discipline. It encourages public appreciation of cultural anthropology’s intellectual power—how it broadens our collective understanding of the world around us, above and beyond the insights of individual cases. But that is for you, the reader, to decide.
Given the overwhelming information that continually pushes at us over the Internet, this blog takes a different tack from traditional blogs. Rather than one perspective, it has four to foster thought about comparison and its relevance to the problems the field faces today. Please take this blog as food for thought, as offering points to ponder. PLEASE NOTE: To facilitate quicker reading, the key passages in each section have been highlighted.
Where Have the Comparisons Gone? (Should We Blame the Grinch?)
(Center for a Public Anthropology, Hawaii Pacific University)
Let me set out the facts of the mystery as I understand them. (Later, I will explain the reference to Dr. Seuss’ Grinch.)
Comparison has been part of anthropology for over two millennia. It is central to the discipline. Herodotus’ descriptions of the Persians, Assyrians, Egyptians, and Scythians vis-à-vis the Greeks draw on comparison. Likewise, it occurs in Cook’s accounts of various Pacific peoples.
As anthropology became a more formalized field in the late nineteenth century, it also became more sophisticated in its comparisons—classifying different societies into evolutionary schema. In the influential The Golden Bough (1890, 1900 & 1906-15), James Frazer described religious beliefs among a range of societies. These accounts suggested to Frazer an evolution of human thought from magic through religion to science. In Ancient Society (1877), Henry Lewis Morgan similarly perceived an evolutionary connection between the Iroquois and Aztec Confederacies, the Athenian Phratry and the Scottish Clan.
Such work attracted a wide readership and had considerable influence beyond the field. (Robert Graves, William Butler Yeats, Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, and D.H. Lawrence drew on Frazer’s work; Karl Marx, Charles Darwin, and Sigmund Freud cited Morgan in their writings.) But Franz Boas would have none of these broad, speculative evolutionary comparisons. In “The Limitations of the Comparative Method in Anthropology” (1896), he sought to drive a stake through them. He wanted to build comparisons from the ground up, starting with specific groups with specific histories. In his own words:
When we have cleared up the history of a single culture and understand the effects of environment and the psychological conditions that are reflected in it we have made a step forward, as we can then investigate in how far the same causes or other causes were at work in the development of other cultures. Thus by comparing histories of growth general laws may be found. This method is much safer than the comparative method, as it is usually practiced, because instead of a hypothesis on the mode of development actual history forms the basis for our deductions (1940 , 279).
The problem is that neither Boas nor most of his students ever implemented the second part of his historical method, comparing different group histories with one another. As Fred Eggan explains:
[Boas’] criticism effectively killed the classic “comparative method,” so far as American anthropology was concerned. . . . By the time General Anthropology was published in 1938, Boas was still cautious, . . . with regard to the comparative method in cultural studies . . . he was no longer optimistic about finding any laws of historical development. As a result, the comparative method was not rehabilitated in the manner envisaged in 1896, . . . the potentialities of comparison for working out basic concepts were hampered (1965, 364; see also, 1954, 748).
While driving a stake through the heart seems to terminate vampires—at least in the movies—it has proven less effective in anthropology. Some of Boas’ students, for example, still emphasized comparison. Thirty-two years after Boas’ critique, Margaret Mead’s Coming of Age in Samoa (1928) became an anthropological classic with the broader public. It involves a comparison of Samoan and American adolescence. Ruth Benedict’s Patterns of Culture (1934) was another widely read book and was in fact translated into fourteen languages. She compares the Pueblo, Dobu, and Kwakiutl in respect to certain personality patterns.
But overall, cultural anthropology during the first part of the twentieth century focused mostly on the first part of Boas’ historical method. As Eggan and others suggest, the emphasis was on specifics and not on synthesis.
Things Change in the 1950s and 1960s
Eggan sought to reinvigorate the second part of Boas’ agenda, terming the approach “controlled comparison.” The focus was on comparison among different groups in the same cultural/historical area and environment (1954, 758). I perceive it as the Goldilocks approach: It focuses on comparisons that are neither too small nor too large but just right for developing insights about certain groups.
There were a host of studies during this period that followed the so-called Goldilocks approach. As Oscar Lewis wrote in 1956, “Within the past five years there have appeared an unusually large number of theoretical writings dealing with [the] comparative method in anthropology” (1956, 260). Eggan, writing nine years later, voiced a similar sentiment. (1965, 357). Let me name a few studies to jog readers’ memories: S. F. Nadel’s “Witchcraft in Four African Societies” (1952); Elman Service’s “Indian-European Relations in Latin America” (1955); and Eric Wolf’s “Closed Corporate Peasant Communities in Mesoamerica and Java” (1957). Marshall Sahlins examined Social Stratification in Polynesia (1958) and then “The Segmentary Lineage” between the Tiv and Nuer in respect to predatory expansion (1961). Irving Goldman compared a range of Polynesian societies in Ancient Polynesia Society (1970).
Today, comparisons, especially such controlled comparisons, have lost their popularity. There are still comparisons—note, for example Eric Wolf’s classic Europe and the People Without History (1982). Laura Nader (1994), in “Comparative Consciousness,” discusses the politics of comparative depictions of woman’s roles in Egypt and the United States. But, generally speaking, an examination of recent articles published in anthropology journals suggests that comparisons are now relatively narrow, rare, and/or brief. “The sheer number of comparative articles and books published” in the 1950s, Nader observes in the above article, reminds us “that energetic debates about the intellectual place of comparison are missing among today’s anthropological agendas” (1994, 85). In a 1987 book titled Comparative Anthropology, Ladislav Holy, for his part, observes: “These days, a great proportion of empirical research is distinctly non-comparative” and “comparisons aimed specifically at generating cross-culturally valid generalizations seem to be conspicuous by their absence” (1987, 13). Just this year, Matei Candea suggests, “in the main, discussions of comparative method and epistemology [have] for some time been mothballed” (2019, 1).
The loss of comparison, especially the flexible Goldilocks version of comparison mentioned above, comes at a difficult time for anthropology. As I argue in An Anthropology of Anthropology (2019), one might question to what degree cultural anthropology has made systematic intellectual progress in recent decades. No doubt lots of articles and books have been published on a range of interesting topics. But more publications do not necessarily produce more knowledge. Rather, they often produce unsubstantiated assertions of uncertain, ambiguous value. They frequently go off in diverse directions. Despite appearances to the contrary, recent publications rarely systematically build on one another’s work. Based on a detailed analysis of prominent publications between 1950 and 2000, An Anthropology of Anthropology suggests there has been less intellectual progress than one might hope. Publications have mostly enhanced the careers of individual anthropologists—not the people they studied nor the understandings of the larger society that funded the research.
The Need for Comparisons
Comparisons do not necessarily prove a point. But they help to make sense of data about a group by broadening the frame of analysis. They offer the opportunity for new insights and syntheses. Derek Freedman has called some of Mead’s Samoan research into question. But anthropologists would be hard pressed not to acknowledge the insights her work provided a host of Americans trying to better understand American adolescence.
Without comparative studies that draw ethnographic data from various groups together, that allow both those inside and outside the field to see broader patterns, anthropology remains a fragmented body of assertions with uncertain, ambiguous value. Without comparison, especially of the Goldilocks variety, anthropology is caught in an awkward position. Anthropologists want to move beyond the problematic broad conjectures of earlier times. They prefer more precise, more historical, and/or more scientific analyses. But without comparisons to broaden this perspective, to help synthesize the data, there are no broader frameworks that make sense of their assertions, that demonstrate anthropology’s intellectual importance. All we have is a deluge of specialized studies of uncertain significance.
Why have explicit forms of comparison, especially of the Goldilocks version, become diminished, to the degree they have, today? How did anthropology get into this situation, where details and quantity overwhelm synthesis and quality?
This brings us to Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1957). Following Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger (1966), many may want to blame those who reside outside the field, those who seem different than us, for our present plight. In this line, Richard Hofstadter (1964) referred to “a paranoid style” in American politics. We might perceive it in academia as well. Daniel Bessner and Michael Brenes (2019) recently blamed the difficult job market in the humanities on the self-serving tendencies of tenured faculty in the American Historical Association. In anthropology, the oppressive accountability of Academic Analytics is often blamed on neoliberalism. The Grinch represents the perfect outsider. He is a grouchy creature with a heart “two sizes too small” who lives on cold Mt. Crumpit north of the warm-hearted Whos. Unlike the Whos, the Grinch hates Christmas with its toys and feasting on Who-pudding. That is why he decided to steal all the Who children’s Christmas toys.
Might I suggest it makes little sense to blame anthropology’s present plight on others— whether they are real or fictional characters? Anthropology’s present difficulties—its declining membership, its limited funding, its lack of innovative perspectives that others can then build on in insightful ways, its limited positive public image, its fragmentation—are entwined with our inability to move toward broader, more comparative syntheses that provide insights that are valued by those beyond the discipline. This problem does not derive from these others having a heart “two sizes too small.” The problem is our own lack of daring to break out of our current intellectual framework, to shift paradigms as An Anthropology of Anthropology (2019) suggests.
What is needed is a return to comparison, to syntheses of data that move beyond the latest fad, syntheses that enhance our understanding of various groups—and not a myriad of fragmentary details, cleverly framed, regarding a particular group. Yes, taking the time to develop broader syntheses will reduce the number of publications produced. But these publications should enrich the field; they should gain greater recognition from those beyond the discipline while, at the same time, embodying our professional integrity. What is needed is the courage, the daring, to return to the comparative focus and make it vital to the field once more. Isn’t comparison what anthropology is all about?
A Comparative Consciousness
(University of California, Berkeley)
Comparative methodologies should include the interactive aspects of the global movement of people, goods and ideas. The term comparative consciousness implies that people are sometimes not conscious about comparison, although the act of thinking comparatively is probably universal. In travel observations, depending on the context, comparison is sometimes implicit, sometimes explicit. But comparison is always part of the observational substratum.
For example, the Egyptian Shaykh I-Sha’rawi published his guide as the ideal paradigm by which a woman’s life may be measured as truly Islamic in Cairo of 1982 (see Stowasser 1987). I-Sha’rawi extols the civil rights of the Islamic woman noting the rights that women in the West do not have: “When a woman marries in Europe, she calls herself by her husband’s name. She does not have the right to retain her name or her father’s or mother’s name. Under French law she does not have the right to stipulate individual property for herself. The West does not give the woman any rights, neither concerning her name, nor concerning her wealth.” I-Sha’rawi continues to note that “as mothers, women find themselves in high regard in Islam as compared to the West” (in Stowasser1987 267-268). Egyptian women often perceive American women are sex objects and cite the multi-billion-dollar pornography industry as evidence. Women in the West are said to be under daily threat of rape, while they are not in Cairo. U.S. incest and family violence rates are cited, and always we are reminded that the portrayal of women in American magazines is disrespectful.
The Western media reciprocate, and their images show that the East plays an important part in the construction of Western womanhood as well. Images of the Muslim woman show her as pitiable and downtrodden. The implications of both implicit and explicit comparisons are fundamental to the control of Western women and, through development, Eastern women as well. Female subordination is increasingly rationalized in terms of the other. Downtrodden Arab females make Muslim culture in general seem less human, and by comparison the treatment of Western women seem more human, and more enlightened. The reverse is also true; images of the West are of a barbaric and immoral people. The result of using comparison as control, I argue, is perpetuation of female subordination in both East and West.
Stanley Brandes’ Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond (2006) provides another example of comparison. In his book, Brandes summarizes three decades of fieldwork in Mexico with contemporary observations of the Day of the Dead celebrations in the U.S. His is a moving picture elucidating how the Day of the Dead is being redepicted in both Mexico and the U.S., as regards national identity in Mexico and multiculturalism in the U.S.; a religious and tourism holiday in Mexico for adults, in the U.S. a holiday for children. His examination across borders highlights Mexican and American patterns – a response to death in Mexico, in the U.S. making and remaking, both in close proximity – diverse forms of a single festival both international and interethnic.
As for public attention, Brandes informs me how he was invited to Pixar Studios in Emeryville, CA to discuss the Day of the Dead celebrations. He found a dozen employees sitting, each with an annotated copy of his book questioning him for about two hours. Pixar was working on a new film about the Day of the Dead. The film project became Coco (2017), an animated fantasy film released by Walt Disney Pictures. The story follows a 12-year-old boy named Miguel, who is transported to the Land of the Dead where he seeks the help of his deceased musician great-grandfather to return him to his family among the living, and to reverse his family’s ban on music. Coco became a huge success, winning dozens of critical awards.
If knowledge is power, comparison, as I emphasize in my 2015 book What the Rest Think of the West https://www.ucpress.edu/book/9780520285781/what-the-rest-think-of-the-west, is critical in the dynamic of knowledge productions.
Comparison: The Impossible Method?
(University of Cambridge)
While I agree with a number of Robert Borofsky’s concerns in his piece for this forum, I would suggest a slightly different reading of the problem, and hence of the way forward (the arguments below are more fully developed in my 2018 book, Comparison in Anthropology: The Impossible Method.
The problem outlined in Borofsky’s piece seems achingly familiar. Lack of shared purpose, of confidence in comparison, is something anthropologists have been complaining of intermittently at least since the 1980s. And yet, there are some fairly obvious senses in which comparison has never gone away: anthropologists compare all the time, today as in the days of Eggan or Morgan. On the smallest scale, any single ethnographic account is built up from micro-comparisons of particular experiences, moments, and conversations. And while the “exoticizing” comparisons of yore have been thoroughly critiqued, their key device—the particular aesthetics of a “them vs. us” contrast, which I have called frontal comparison—persists every time an ethnography is taken to challenge “liberal visions of freedom” or “Euroamerican concepts of the individual,” which is pretty often. Granted, neither of the above are the sort of mid-level, Eggan-style comparisons which Borofsky terms “Goldilocks comparisons.” But those persist too in the collective practice of anthropology conference panels, seminar discussion, and edited volumes. And most published anthropological pieces include some form of literature review that sets up a comparative context: “Recent studies of [insert topic or region] have tended to argue that [insert claim], but this case shows that [insert slightly different claim].” Formulaic? Perhaps. Comparative? Definitely.
In sum I would say that comparison—even “Goldilocks” comparison—never went away. What Borofsky’s piece is mourning the passing of, is a certain kind of confidence in holding up these comparisons as a core contribution of the discipline. (This is particularly true of “Goldilocks” comparison. Frontal comparisons, by contrast, retain the kind of shock value that enable them to remain quite high-profile as “cultural critique” or as philosophical experiments.)
I see this as the effect of a tacit discomfort: while anthropologists compare all the time, they are nervously aware that comparison should by rights be impossible—or at least impossible to justify, epistemologically or politically. What I have in mind is the litany of “problems” concerning comparison which successive generations of anthropologists have brought up. These include classic questions such as: How do we define what counts as a unit? Are groups of people (or other entities we might wish to compare) bounded, internally homogeneous, and externally diverse in the way required? Do people(s) themselves wish to be characterized in this way? And if we do see a pattern, how can we tell if it is in “the data” or an effect of our own interests and perspectives? These familiar difficulties mean that while we, necessarily, compare all the time, many of us feel that if we really thought about it, comparison would be impossible—so best not think about it too much.
To move out of this impasse, we should confront the problems above clearly and systematically. We should acknowledge that comparison in anthropology is made of different kinds of heuristics: imperfect devices for producing particular effects. Some kinds of comparative heuristics can tackle some of the problems above, others can tackle others. All of these heuristics are imperfect and partial—but this is OK as long as we are aware of and explicit about what is bracketed each time. What we need, then, is a systematic and precise account of the limitations of the intellectual tools we nevertheless choose to use.
This solution takes us straight to a second problem. Heuristics are devices for achieving something. But what are we trying to achieve? Anthropologists do not agree on any single point or purpose for their comparative endeavors. Some see value in generalization, others in critique; some want to pin reality down, others want essentially to shake it up; for some, the key “point” is crafting new theoretical terms and concepts, for others spotlighting injustice, or discovering new patterns in the world. These purposes can of course be recombined in various ways, but the resulting variety still makes for some irreconcilable differences. This diversity of purposes and visions of the discipline, more than anything else, seems to me to lie at the heart of Borofsky’s concerns about anthropology’s “fragmentation.”
This is also where I suspect my suggestions diverge most from his. I’m pretty sure anthropology will continue to “go off in diverse directions,” and see that as a key strength of the discipline. That diversity is productive and important; we just need to remind ourselves that whereas our purposes diverge, we still share a set of heuristics, of more or less worked out intuitions about what makes good comparisons—comparisons which generate “insight” and “broaden . . . the frame of analysis,” as Borofsky puts it. Doing so will remind us why we still value “Goldilocks comparisons”—and also comparisons within single cases, and bold frontal comparisons, and the myriad other comparative heuristics which have sustained the discipline throughout its history, and which new generations of anthropologists will continue to recombine and add to. Comparison is indeed what anthropology is all about. Crucially, both are multiple.
A Decline of Intellectual Argument
(University of California, San Diego, École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales)
Comparisons are clearly important as a way of asking questions. But comparison does not necessarily help in answering them. Comparison is important and useful in investigating a topic, in asking about the nature of difference. But, by itself, it does not supply answers. What is needed is a general theoretical approach to the issues. What are we after, what are we looking for, what issues do we want to solve, and with what bodies of hypotheses?
What is necessary, then, is uncovering mechanisms and deeper structures that can be analyzed. This implies active hypothesizing, trying things out. Comparison, in this account, helps in highlighting differences but not in explaining them. Comparison draws us to facts that lead to further discussion and interpretation.
In Sweden, rape rates are among the highest in the world. It is all quite recent, since the 1990s. This correlates pretty closely with recent waves of immigration, primarily from the Middle East and East Africa. What are we to make of this? When young Middle Eastern men come to Sweden, where women are quite free and do not hide themselves in public, the latter often see them as excellent subjects for sexual advances. Add to this the comparative perspective that the West is considered unclean and decadent, and Western women readily accessible sexually. Comparison does not resolve the issue, but it gives us something to discuss.
Standard avoidance talk insists that there is no correlation, even though police statistics say otherwise. In a comparative sense, it is true that the rate of rape in the Middle East is considerably lower than Sweden. But then it can be argued, from another comparative perspective, that the reason for this is that in the Middle East women are kept covered and rape has serious and direct consequences in the form of murderous revenge.
Comparison can thus be invoked in a range of discussions. It is important to remember that what makes a phenomenon distinctive is its difference from other similar phenomena. We might argue that anthropology, indeed, is born out of comparison and contrast. How do we recognize difference if not initially in relation to ourselves? Michael Agar’s (1985) classic Speaking of Ethnography presents a core argument in this respect. Ethnography is very much based on what he calls “breakdowns,” i.e. the confrontation of the self with an “other”—be it a person, behavior or whatever—that cannot be reconciled with the cognitive structure of the self. But, as I said above, comparison is only a way of discovering patterns, not a way of accounting for them.
Comparison can generate classifications of the type used, for example, in functionalist studies of descent structures. But these classifications did not, in themselves, help us understand how descent structures emerge and change. They were mostly classifications aimed at the formulation of general principles by means of abstraction. This was the dead-end of functionalism: “the function of X is to do what it does.” Claude Lévi-Strauss went beyond the classificatory approach of the functionalists by searching for “deeper” mechanisms that account for the different social orders that we encounter within descent structures. Whether he was right or wrong, what is important is the project itself. Lévi-Strauss himself insisted that structuralism was nothing more than scientific practice, based on hypothesized explanations, that could be hopefully falsified and surpassed.
The recent history of anthropology, unfortunately, has not contributed to better explanations. Instead, as Robert Borofsky suggests above, the search for comparative explanation has more or less dried up. This gradual disappearance of comparative studies in anthropology began in the 1980s with the movement toward post-modernism. Here, any notion of explanation was too vulgar to be retained, and culture was a text to be read and a thing in itself. There was no need for comparison, because nothing needed to be accounted for.
The decline of comparison has continued into the more recent turns to globalization and global assemblages, where comparison has been subsumed under assumptions of collections of mixed differences or hybridity—all epitomized by fusion cooking. What I once referred to as the “spaghetti principle”, the misconstrual of culture in terms of the origin of objects rather than the way they are constructed in people’s lives (Friedman and Friedman 2008:2), leaves no room for comparison. If there are no longer any entities to compare then there is nothing to explain, only careers to be pursued, as Borofsky (2019) discusses in An Anthropology of Anthropology. The problem, then, is more than the lack of comparison. The problem is the general decline of intellectual argument.
To keep this blog post short, the well recognized, easily found references are not listed below. They can be found through Google.
Agar, Michael. 1985. Speaking of Ethnography. London: SAGE Publications.
Bessner, Daniel, and Michael Brenes. 2019. “A Moral Stain on the Profession: As the Humanities Collapse, It’s Time to Name and Shame the Culprits.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 26.
Boas, Franz. 1940 . “The Limitations of the Comparative Method.” In Race, Language and Culture, edited by Franz Boas, 270–280. New York: Macmillan Company.
Borofsky, Robert. 2019. An Anthropology of Anthropology: Is It Time to Shift Paradigms? Open Access Edition. Center for a Public Anthropology.
Brandes, Stanley. 2006. Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.
Candea, Matei. 2018. Comparison in Anthropology: The Impossible Method
New York: Cambridge University Press.
Douglas, Mary. 1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. London: Routledge.
Eggan, Fred. 1954. “Social Anthropology and the Method of Controlled Comparison.” American Anthropologist 56, no. 1: 743–63.
———. 1965. “Some Reflections on Comparative Method in Anthropology.” In Context and Meaning in Cultural Anthropology, edited by Melford Spiro, 357–372. New York: Free Press.
Friedman, Kajsa Ekholm and Jonathan Friedman.
2008 Modernities, Class, and the Contradictions of Globalization. AltaMira Press.
Goldman, Irving. 1970. Ancient Polynesia Society. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.
Hofstadter, Richard. 1964. “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Harper’s Magazine, November.
Holy, Ladislav. 1987. “Introduction. Description, Generalization and Comparison.” In Comparative Anthropology, edited by Ladislav Holy, 1–21. Oxford: Blackwell.
Lewis, Oscar. 1956. “Comparisons in Cultural Anthropology.” In Current Anthropology: A Supplement to Anthropology Today, edited by William Thomas, 259–292. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Nadel, S. F. 1952. “Witchcraft in Four African Societies.” American Anthropologist 54, no. 1: 18–29.
Nader, Laura. 1994. “Comparative Consciousness.” In Assessing Cultural Anthropology, edited by Robert Borofsky, 84–96. New York: McGraw-Hill.
———, ed. 2015. What the Rest Think of the West: Since 600 AD. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Sahlins, Marshall. 1958. Social Stratification in Polynesia. Seattle: The University of Washington Press.
———. 1961. “The Segmentary Lineage: An Organization of Predatory Expansion.” American Anthropologist 63: 322–345.
Service, Elman. 1955. “Indian-European Relations in Colonial Latin America.” American Anthropologist 57, no. 3: 411–425.
Stowasser, B. ed.
1987 The Islamic Impulse. London: Croom Helm. (Also published by the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, Washington, D.C.
Wolf, Eric. 1957. “Closed Corporate Peasant Communities in Mesoamerica and Central Java.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 13: 1–18.
———. 1982. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.