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Comparative Methods in SocioCultural Anthropology Today
Andre Gingrich

Today, to an increasing extent, comparative methods are once more emerging in socio-cultural anthropology in ways that are unpretentious and rather pedestrian while also displaying a fair amount of pragmatism and at times even playfulness. Three short examples illustrate this introductory point. A comparative method is applied when an MA student (to whom I shall refer to here as Khulud) in the final section of a seminar paper summarizes her findings from the ethnographic literature on the many respectful ways in which several West African societies treat their elders and when she then concludes by contrasting those findings with the frequently careless forms of treatment of the majority of senior citizens in many North American contexts. In fact, Khulud who actually attended the seminar of one of my colleagues at a US Midwestern Anthropology Department applied an elementary form of self-reflexive binary comparison as a device for anthropology as cultural critique (Marcus and Fischer 1986). While some argue that contrasts are to be clearly distinguished from comparison, I share the alternative view that contrasting is an integral element of comparative analyses. In the present case, certain qualities of specific local societies elsewhere are contrasted along comparative criteria with their counterpart features here. If carried out properly, this form of selfreflexive binary comparison indeed may help to gain some additional critical distance from a seemingly familiar setting, and to criticize and reassess it accordingly.

Another set of comparative methods is put into practice when Boris, a junior scholar, in preparation for publication of a new book, revises the manuscript of his excellent PhD thesis on, say, organized crime in a small, remote postCommunist Russian town (see Schneider and Schneider 2011 for a similar context). It is certainly not unusual when his former PhD adviser, if not his publishers anonymous reviewers, tells the author that despite his own enthusiasm for finely grained ethnography, many potential readers might not find the details of organized crime in that particular town, per se, to be interesting enough. Adviser and publisher thus seek to encourage Boris to bring out the wider relevance of his ethnographic case. He should relate the ethnography from that small post-Soviet town to other documented cases of organized crime explicitly in the wider region and beyond. This will put Boris in a much better position to convince his future readers of the ways in which his particular study also represents an exemplary case for a wider class of phenomena. By following this advice, Boris is applying forms of regional and distant comparison in order to highlight that wider relevance. In turn, the additional comparative effort may not only promote the authors career and the books marketing but also is likely to provide a more straightforward and accessible contribution to human knowledge in this specific field of research. Thirdly, some of socio-cultural anthropologys financially most successful grant proposals during the twenty-first centurys first decade investigate

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along comparative lines the diverse forms of impact of current global crises, and of the current phase of globalization. In her European Research Council project Waterworlds, for instance, Danish anthropologist Kirsten Hastrup directs an interdisciplinary team with a core group of anthropologists in pursuit of her main research question, regarding how people in different parts of Asia, Africa, and the circumpolar regions cope with the consequences of climate change for water (Hastrup 2009). From the outset, this project therefore included strong elements of distant, as well as of shifting time/space comparison. While appreciating the diversity among and between these different local coping strategies, the projects overall methodological design and key questions, equally importantly, allow for the identification of commonalities as well.


In a nutshell, the three preceding examples already feature some of the main factors underlying the recent (re-)emergence of comparative methods in anthropology. Khuluds seminar paper contrasts the usually respectful treatment of elders in some West African societies with the often careless behaviour towards elder citizens in many North American cases: the use of insights gained from encounters with other societies for a new assessment of the researchers society of residence represents perhaps the prototype of anthropological comparison. As Laura Nader once argued (1994), most anthropologists (at least implicitly) tend to compare in this elementary binary manner: opposing their society and culture to ours, however, always entails the danger of arriving at conclusions that may be premature at best. An uncritical usage of binary comparison sometimes merely serves to corroborate preconceived stereotypes about others (or, for that matter, about us). Yet if employed in a non-simplistic, critical, and selfreflexive manner, i.e. by avoiding any negative (or positive) stereotyping, binary comparison may in fact yield interesting preliminary insights. Thus, one source for the renewed interest in comparative methods in anthropology can be identified in the continuing need for critical analysis and awareness about the world and the societies we inhabit, and in the requirement to consider alternatives. The second source is somewhat more profane. To a certain extent, the growing demand felt by

many anthropologists for the more explicit highlighting of the wider relevance of their particular ethnographic examples translates changing market pressures. In an increasingly mediainformed and media-saturated world, book-length analyses of very particular cases per se attract less attention and sell worse than some of their exotic predecessors did in previous times. Whether the thematic monograph in question is based on single-sited or, as in Boris manuscript, on multisited ethnography matters little in this regard: readers still would have to engage primarily with organized crime in a relatively obscure postSoviet provincial setting, and many potential readers might not find that theme exciting enough in its own right. Publishers and anonymous reviewers who anticipate this discrepancy do of course respond to market mechanisms. Yet, in another sense, discussing a particular case not only in its own right but also as an example of a larger phenomenon is and should be routine research practice that might be expected of anthropologists. In order to carry that out in a proper way, comparison is indispensable but in ways that go beyond mere butterfly collecting, as Edmund Leach quite rightly pointed out long ago. The documentation and systematic analysis of colourful particularities is indispensable, but it is not enough as a research agenda. In fact, an academic discipline permanently confining itself to nothing but the documentation of particularities would soon lose its entitlement to exist as a discipline in its own right. Although still widespread among many senior anthropologists, the reluctance to compare is a legacy that is losing the historical justification it once had for a while, and is fading out. During the past centurys final quarter, a majority of anthropologists in that generation became quite wary of the many abuses and dead-end streets of comparison in the service of the many grand theories and universalist meta-narratives that had prevailed until then. As a result, a substantial number of anthropologists especially those following a combination of postmodern philosophy with cultural relativism in North America and elsewhere became relatively sceptical about comparison and confined themselves largely to ethnographic analyses: they felt that comparison would always necessarily go together with the need to corroborate one or the other grand theory and its universal claims. That generations scepticism had several positive effects, such as the subsequent profound reassessment of ethnographic methods, and, likewise, it also led to a basic disentanglement of grand theory from comparative methods. For these reasons, today, it is again selfevident that one may well pursue comparative methods without having in mind any universal

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(e.g. structural, evolutionary, or other) grand theory, although some theoretically informed problem always will have to guide the pursuit of academic comparison. When publishers, advisers, reviewers, and the media therefore encourage Boris to please highlight the wider significance of his particular ethnography, then this should not be misinterpreted in a reductionist manner as sinister seduction by evil market forces. Instead, it can be seen as a healthy reminder sometimes mediated by the market, and sometimes not that the time has come to also address larger issues through improved ethnographies of the particular by means of new forms of comparison. When socio-cultural anthropologists are encouraged to highlight the wider relevance of their ethnography examples by comparative means, they are invited to reintegrate our field in this regard into standard academic procedures and routine research practices, on the basis of our improved awareness and with refined skills and tools. The historical moment when it was appropriate to shy away from any comparison whatsoever is over, and if as an entire field we were to try to preserve that moment artificially we would put our discipline at risk. Not giving the game away, as Marilyn Strathern aptly phrased it (2002), indeed is the task we face with regard to comparison in anthropology. Consequently, Boris is very well advised to use elements of regional comparison as a more established comparative procedure for assessing other cases in the same wider area against his own analysis, and to combine that with the more innovative technique of distant comparison for his additional consideration of organized crime during the same period, but in other parts of the world. Anthropology as cultural critique and highlighting the wider relevance of particular ethnographies have been identified as two main sources and applied fields for anthropologys renewed interest in comparison. Those transnational and globalizing forces that define our world at present lend both sources much additional weight. In their own right, these forces represent the third source, and the single most important element among the variety of causal factors that have put comparison back on socio-cultural anthropologys methodological agenda. More and more people around the world are facing similar challenges and transformations albeit to different degrees, at different speeds, and in different forms. It therefore has become an increasingly urgent research requirement to compare the diverse and similar ways in which they locally interact with those transnational and global challenges and transformations. Whether or not this represented a less pressing necessity for anthropology during the 1980s or 1990s may be open to debate. It certainly can no

longer be contested during the twenty-first centurys first quarter, however. This is the very transparent and elementary rationale underlying Kirsten Hastrups tremendous grant success. I have already pointed out that the projects main empirical sites are located on at least three different continents. This indicates not only an interesting intersection between larger, comparatively oriented projects such as Waterworlds, and one possible dimension in the ethnographic strategy of multi-sited fieldwork (Marcus 1995, see also Janet Carsten in this volume). Perhaps more importantly, however, the projects design also indicates a potentially increasing relevance for distant comparison in the near future. In their ecological, economic, and in most other of their main dimensions, globalization and global crises do imply hegemonic tendencies of time/space compression (Harvey 1990), by which temporal and spatial distances tend to lose some of their significance. The worlds growing interconnectedness therefore makes it more relevant than before to compare the living conditions of humans who until recently were thought to be separated by large temporal and spatial distances, but who are no longer so strictly separated from each other in the one global ecumene that we inhabit.


The three introductory examples and their discussion have already briefly demonstrated a few of the main characteristic elements and features of anthropological comparison today, and they have also provided an implicit and cursory first overview of the pluralism and the diversity in the fields current methodological inventory. These two aspects common characteristics and pluralist diversity shall now be further elaborated. Characteristic common elements of anthropological comparison will be discussed in the present section, in order to subsequently explore some of the diverse comparative procedures in a more detailed manner in the final section. In a way, the argument will thus proceed from the exemplary introductory cases towards a loose and flexible form of systematization. From the outset, comparison is first of all an elementary cognitive activity by which the human mind identifies similarities and differences. In its basic modus operandi, comparison therefore is closely related to other cognitive phenomena such as analogy, recognition, inference, intuition, memory, abstraction, conceptualization, or classification (see Christina Toren in this volume). Depending on the theme or experience under

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scrutiny, one of comparisons main two component elements at times may become much more significant than the other. Yet, essentially, comparison always entails at least some elements of both: it thus can be defined as the mental activity of simultaneously identifying similarities as well as differences. If anthropological comparison is understood as a highly specialized version of the human minds general comparative potential, we can see that both share the same salient feature. Anthropological comparison always examines and analyses similarities and differences among humans interactions with each other and with the world they inhabit. At the same time, comparison in one way or another also represents a fundamental methodological ingredient in almost every academic subfield of the humanities, the social sciences, life sciences, and physical sciences. In that wider academic sense, comparative research is subjected to the prevailing and frequently contested general principles, standards, and procedures of research at large. They include, in the present context, several key elements. One key element is the priority for formulating a valid central research question, and its defining role for the subsequent choice of empirical and analytical methods. Another key element in this context is epistemological, and concerns a bundle of intersubjective necessities such as coherence, transparency, plausibility, and a more or less systematic, more or less up-to-date form of communicating the results to the relevant academic community (Flick, Kardorff, and Steinke 2004). Since anthropological comparison also has to be understood as a specialized form of academic comparison at large, it shares these general features in particular those of the defining role of the central research question, and the relevance of intersubjective necessities. Whereas the elements discussed so far are common features shared with many other forms of comparison, the following points are more specific to anthropological comparison and only a few additional neighbouring academic disciplines. Similar to the position occupied by the whole field of socio-cultural anthropology, anthropological comparison is situated within the wider research landscapes at the intersection primarily between the social sciences and the humanities; a few additional zones also intersect with the life sciences, such as cognitive anthropology and medical anthropology. Based on its unique position in the wider interdisciplinary realm, one of its main markers of distinction is the fact that anthropological comparison as a methodological procedure, often to a very large extent, or even entirely, depends on the successful pursuit of other empirical procedures first and foremost,

ethnographic fieldwork. As with socio-cultural anthropology as a whole, anthropological comparison could not exist without such clear priority given to ethnographic fieldwork. In this substantial sense, anthropological comparison relies on the same empirical foundations that define the whole field, but it usually does not represent a quasi-independent empirical methodological strategy. Anthropological comparison therefore is a largely dependent methodology that fully recognizes and acknowledges the priority of ethnographic fieldwork and other primary empirical procedures. From such a perspective it also becomes evident that anthropological comparison always engages with the question of what is unique in a particular case, what of it represents wider general or even universal phenomena, and how one can be epistemologically translated (Niranjana 1992) into the other. The priority of ethnographic fieldwork over anthropological comparison may be played out in direct ways, if the researcher primarily compares by means of his/her own fieldwork and its results, or in an indirect manner, i.e. if other researchers fieldwork results are used for comparison. For writing up her seminar paper at her US Midwestern Anthropology Department, Khulud of course could not carry out any fieldwork in West Africa or North America herself. In this case, the priority of ethnographic fieldwork over comparison was indirect in two ways: some of it had been carried out some time ago by others in West Africa, and some in North America, and Khulud could and had to rely on it critically in order to compare the results a posteriori as her cultural critique. Boris could rely on his own fieldwork, but he also felt motivated to compare that case study a posteriori with evidence he afterwards chose from the published literature, i.e. that had been researched by others. By contrast to these first two examples, Kirsten Hastrups project Waterworlds represents an a priori combination of plans for ethnographic fieldwork and anthropological comparison within one coherent research process. Such an a priori comparative orientation allows the overall comparative research question (How do people in various sites of this globe cope with current and foreseeable future effects of climate change upon their access to water?) from the outset to have a direct impact on the pursuit of ethnographic fieldwork. Still, no final comparative synthesis would be possible in order to answer the central research question if ethnographic fieldwork yielded insufficient or unsatisfactory results. In this a priori combination of anthropological comparison with multi-sited ethnographic fieldwork, the latter therefore again takes priority over the former in very direct ways in fact, since the main bulk of ethnographic

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work for the final comparative analysis is done by the teams researchers themselves. For the sake of clarity, it should be added that each of these two sequential forms of anthropological comparison has its advantages and disadvantages. Depending on the research question and on the available means to pursue it, either one may be more appropriate than the other in a given context. As in Hastrups project, an a priori sequence of combining ethnographic fieldwork with anthropological comparison requires much more intensive preparation and fine-tuning from the outset, and, if carried out successfully, this will provide more fertile and satisfying results for the final comparative analysis. Possible disadvantages in such a priori combinations may occur whenever the comparative goals impose limitations and challenges upon the actual pursuit of fieldwork that are too rigid. Another disadvantage lies in the fact that most of these a priori combinations unavoidably tend to be time-consuming, or budget-intensive, or both: it seems that in general, a priori combinations thus are better suited for larger individual or group projects than for smaller ones. By contrast, the a posteriori combination of ethnographic fieldwork results with comparative analysis is defined by the fact that comparison is carried out at a later point, after the conclusion of fieldwork. This has the advantage that the earlier phases of preparing and carrying out ethnographic fieldwork do not yet require the additional investment of designing them in ways that would optimize the final comparative analysis. While these earlier phases thus remain free from that additional burden, the last phase at times might become more difficult than expected, as in Boris text. He had to carry out quite an intensive search of additional literature, in order to find and analyse appropriate comparable examples that could highlight the wider relevance of his results. At times, such an a posteriori search for comparable cases might not yield such positive results as in Boris case, and it might even fail altogether. That relatively high risk of total failure is the biggest disadvantage in an a posteriori sequence of combining fieldwork with comparison. The risk is even greater if regional and/or distant comparison is required, because for these forms of comparison a broader range of cases is needed. For the same reason, binary self-reflexive comparison, as pursued in Khuluds paper, entails a smaller risk of failure, because it requires merely one additional set of comparable cases. At the end of this brief discussion of ethnographic fieldworks profound relevance for anthropological comparative strategies, and of the ways these two may be sequentially combined, a self-evident point should be mentioned at least

in passing. The a priori and a posteriori forms of sequentially combining ethnographic fieldwork and comparison relate to the results of fieldwork, and to how those results may be combined with anthropological comparison. In a more basic way, every ethnographic fieldworker also compares during the empirical phases of fieldwork: whenever we repeatedly observe similar standard situations in ritual or in everyday behaviour, until we are sure about the kind of more general statement we are entitled to make on that basis, we have been comparing. In this sense, intrinsic empirical comparison is of course part and parcel of any fieldwork procedure itself. (If we add the thought that comparison as a general cognitive or epistemological process of course enters the research process from the outset, then some form of comparison in fact is intrinsic to any anthropological investigation.) I now address those less frequent instances in which fieldwork has no primary relevance for comparative analysis. For the present purpose, I have to confine myself in this regard to a few short remarks on those occasions when anthropological comparison may turn out to be useful, even if it is neither directly nor indirectly based in any immediate manner on ethnographic fieldwork. These occasions may at times arise in connection with experiments in comparison at a distance (see next section), but most other cases of this kind belong to the realm of historical anthropology (see Tristan Platt and Jane Cowans chapters in this volume). Several works may be referred to as examples in this latter context, such as Jean and John Comaroffs historical analysis of Christian missions and colonialism in their South African nineteenth- and twentieth-century dimensions (1991/1997), Marshall Sahlins contrast of historical warfare in Polynesia with Thucydides account of warfare in European antiquity (2004), or Eric Wolfs comparative outline of the encounters of emerging mercantilism and capitalism with the worlds indigenous people (1982). One of my own analytical exercises, in which I compared the effects of the Habsburg and the Ottoman empires 1918 decay and collapse processes with those of Yugoslavia in the 1990s (Gingrich 2002), belongs to the same basic genre. The empirical material in most of these comparative studies in historical anthropology comprises published or unpublished historical texts and historians analyses of them: for the anthropologists who scrutinize those texts with this fields concepts and comparative tools, the comparative method attains independent significance. Only in these very special cases, then, does anthropological comparison switch its position from a fieldwork-dependent to a relatively independent methodological strategy in anthropology.

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It should be emphasized that all these more recent examples differ from much earlier anthropological traditions such as diffusionism and evolutionism. Those paradigms had claimed to explain human history in its grand movements. By contrast, the more recent works quoted here deal with very specific phases of regional histories including regions in which the authors themselves had mastered some previous ethnographic fieldwork to then analyse and compare these regional histories by critically applying anthropological concepts which historians had neglected. This is precisely the point which at times makes anthropological comparison extremely useful for historical analyses, even when to a large extent it cannot be directly based on fieldwork results. Thus, whenever anthropological concepts are available that are richly informed by ethnographic evidence and theoretical debate, they may well be considered for critical comparative application along specific historical timelines. If the historical records are rich enough, and if the relevant anthropological concepts application promises to explain those processes in new and more profound ways, then I for my part would argue that historical comparison without fieldwork may be a justified and worthwhile endeavour for anthropologists. This ends my brief remark on one important exception to the general rule of ethnographic fieldworks primary relevance for anthropological comparison, to which we may now return. The specific positioning of anthropological comparison as a dependent methodological strategy that is based on insights gained from ethnographic fieldwork has an additional important consequence for the main common features of anthropological comparison. Precisely because of ethnographic fieldworks central role, anthropological comparison today in most cases is of a qualitative kind. This does not exclude minor or even major quantitative sub-elements in anthropological comparison, but they are usually of merely secondary importance. Quantitative procedures once played a very important part in anthropological comparison, and at times the term was almost synonymous with a specific record of comparative codification which became known as the Human Relations Area Files (HRAF), strongly associated with the name and work of G.P. Murdock as its founding father. Originally sponsored by US government institutions as part of anthropologys contribution to the Second World War effort (Price 2008), these quantitative comparative procedures have lost much of their former significance within anthropology since the 1970s. That decline primarily was related to disappointing results, and to serious methodological reservations about the empirical basis and the

procedures of the HRAF codification. It should be added that the HRAF continue to operate, with partially improved and updated features but the research communities interacting with them today are small minorities inside and outside of anthropology. It seems doubtful whether this or any other quantitative comparative procedure will attain anything other than a peripheral position in anthropologys near future. The strong and, as I have tried to show, well-founded reluctance to give quantitative comparative procedures more weight in social anthropology has an additional important consequence: because anthropological comparison primarily relies on qualitative procedures, the numbers of examples included in any comparison today are usually much smaller than in the quantitative modes of comparison prevailing in sociology, political sciences, economics, and others among the larger social sciences. As for comparison, the relation between quantitative and qualitative procedures in sociology tends to be the inverse of that in social anthropology, where the number of compared (sets of) cases usually remains relatively low, i.e. closer to the minimum of two than to a maximum of one or two dozen. The status of anthropological comparison as a primarily fieldwork-based methodological strategy with a qualitative orientation, and with strong limitations upon its quantitative range, has important return effects for epistemological and theoretical approaches in anthropology. The choice of appropriate methods always has to be informed by the central research question. In most cases, that choice is simultaneously guided by theory, as well as being oriented towards the problem or puzzle to be solved. Yet any methodological strategy has its own procedural properties, which make a given method, or bundle of methods, in a specific context more appropriate than another for the purpose of solving the problem. In this sense, it has become apparent that because of its quantitative limitations anthropological comparison offers merely some modest utility and value with regard to far-reaching theories with universal claims of relevance. This is less problematic in strictly deductive constellations of universal theorizing, but comes more fully into play as an obstacle in inductive settings and in those transcending both, also known by the epistemological term abduction (Reichertz 2004). In anthropologys history, Claude Lvi-Strauss magnum opus Mythologiques (19691981) represents one of the most outstanding attempts to deductively apply and corroborate a predefined universal theory by means of a specific form of anthropological comparison. Those four volumes compared, decoded, and interpreted a wide range of indigenous myths in the Americas, which was

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guided and inspired by the wider theoretical project of further elaborating a universal theory of the human mind as being organized by, and around, binary oppositions. This is of course not the place to discuss the merits and shortcomings of Lvi-Strauss important contributions to research and knowledge but most anthropologists will agree that since the publication of his main works, cognitive anthropology has advanced well beyond his universal structural theory of the human mind. Mythologiques merely serves us here as a well-known example to make a methodological point: in a deductive manner, it still may formally work to corroborate up to a certain extent, and to subsequently elaborate a universal anthropological theory by means of a far-reaching qualitative anthropological comparison which still has its clearly defined limits, i.e. regional limits in this case. Since a universal theory hardly can ever be proven at once, such a deductive choice of anthropological comparison up to a point is formally possible in such a context with a number of qualifications. In inductive but also in abductive settings, however, the quantitative limitations of anthropological comparison hardly permit the elaboration of any universal theory in the actual sense of this term. Ethnographys rich empirical saturation with a smaller number of comparative cases allows for much more detail to be compared among them, but this comes along with clear limits regarding the possibility of inferring from there towards universals. What anthropologists have to offer instead, on the level of inductively, or alternatively, of abductively, pursued anthropological comparison, are forms of cultural critique as already mentioned, as well as general statements and insights about clearly specified contexts, and middle-range theories (Holy 1987; i.e. with ranges of validity that are limited by topic, time frame, or region). Although not yet completed at the time of writing, Hastrups Waterworlds project seems to be moving in the direction of formulating middlerange theories of a qualitatively based, empirically saturated new type that addresses a globally relevant topic through references to specified sets of different cases. By contrast, other works represent the alternative of specified general insights and statements. In such an approach, all available evidence for a predefined set of ethnographic cases is systematically compared, which then allows general elaborations about precisely these cases. An excellent example is Ernst Halbmayers work on the Carib-speaking Native American communities (2010). Based on his fieldwork among the Yukpa in Venezuela, Halbmayer carried out systematic comparisons with eight other Carib-speaking societies to demonstrate in which

ways prevailing cosmologies are shared and not shared among them, and in relation to other native groups on the continent. Specified general insights of this type then represent a solid basis for contributions to wider, ongoing theoretical debates in our field. While theorizing about universals has become less frequent in socio-cultural anthropology, its comparative methodological inventory nevertheless represents an attractive methodological tool for anybody in this field pursuing wider theoretical or problem-oriented interests. For the disciplines cultural critique, for the formulation of specified general insights, and for anthropologys middle-range theorizing, anthropological comparison is indispensable.


After the first sections discussion of examples and the partially epistemological outline of anthropological comparisons common features in the preceding one, the final section will now take a more pragmatic and hands-on turn in exploring comparisons new diversity in our field.

Developing a Comparative Project

The basic common features of anthropological comparison as discussed in the previous section have all already had a profound pragmatic significance for the very first phase of developing a minor or major comparative research project. In any such case, the central research question and its formulation represent the decisive first key: whether that key is charged with a highly theoretical orientation, or rather with a very empirical and pragmatic agenda, or with a combination of both, as in most cases, all fieldwork is likely to begin from a problem to be explored, and that problem already exists as both an empirically and theoretically worked subject. Depending on the available budgets of time, effort, and resources, one might, during such a projects early phase of development, then contemplate at least the theoretical alternatives regarding how that first key would work if it were to be employed either in no comparative manner at all, or in what could perhaps become an a posteriori endeavour at a later stage, or, rather, in an a priori manner straight away. For this first main decision, two aspects should also be assessed against each other. The first aspect lies in the fact that comparison neither represents lart pour lart, i.e. it is not a laudable or pleasant activity in its

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own right, nor is it a straitjacket or some sort of moral obligation. It should only be pursued either in a serious or in a more playful way if this includes the potential to gain additional insights that cannot be expected from the results of fieldwork alone. Against this first factor of early caution and scepticism the second factor of personal curiosity and professional interest has to be assessed. That second factor also includes the general sources of currently rising attention in anthropologys comparative agenda as discussed in the first section, according to how they combine with the central research question at hand. In addition, different local and national methodological training traditions might provide additional inspiration in either direction. For instance, it might perhaps need a somewhat more engaged theoretical argument in some US contexts than in others to convince ones colleagues and advisers that it is worth at least trying out comparison in a given context, while it might turn out to be a more selfevident and playful endeavour to do just the same in many academic environments of the United Kingdom, France, South Africa, Australia, India, Scandinavia, and elsewhere.

Practical and Empirical Design

In case the early development phase tends to gravitate towards a pro comparison decision, the question of how to design that comparative endeavour intellectually has to take over. This is in fact a very crucial phase, when all those factors have to be considered in their mutual interdependence and fine-tuning and repeatedly so in each subsequent phase which a linear text now obliges me to discuss one after the other. The phase of the practical and empirical design of a comparative anthropological project is perhaps the most difficult between a projects start and its conclusion in publication. It thus requires ample attention, and one should also be prepared to experience frustration and failure. There are five key design factors to be considered in their respective interdependence, as well as against the option of choices discussed in the final subsection (e.g. whether to choose binary or regional or distant comparison, etc.). There is no need to bore ones readers with the actual details in a published text, where they may well be kept implicit or confined to a few paragraphs in a chapter on methodology. Yet, for the comparative research process itself, it is necessary to be explicitly aware of these five design factors regardless of whether an individual researcher or a smaller or larger team are involved, these factors have to be developed and adapted to the respective a priori or a posteriori context of fieldwork, or of historical comparison without fieldwork.

1 Choice of compared units. An older requirement can no longer be upheld today that once demanded a maximum independence among the units to be compared. That requirement from the outset was formulated as too close an analogy to the model of experiments in the natural and life sciences. In times of increasing global interconnectedness, that requirement loses much of its foundation. Still, if the units to be compared actually do exert some obvious influences upon each other (e.g. if you compare aspects of popular culture in Hong Kong, Singapore, and Taiwan), then this should be explicitly addressed. Another misleading requirement was less academic but rather folkloristic. It argued that one should not compare apples and oranges. It is true that for some research questions it is more useful to compare apples with apples if you are interested in, say, soil fertility, tree quality, and the like. It is also true that one can hardly imagine any reasonable research question that would make sense of comparing apples with plaster, or with coffee shops. Yet, comparing apples with oranges may make a great deal of sense if your research questions deal with annual cycles of fruit reproduction, or with their nutritional value for that matter. If nobody had ever compared squirrels and dolphins, we would not have realized that both are mammals: the question of comparability thus cannot be solved a priori, but depends on the empirical side of a problem, and on how the research question is formulated particularly so since we are always engaging with human lives in anthropological comparison. 2 Controlled comparison. After 1945, the notion of controlled comparison in anthropology was first argued for by Fred Eggan (1954). This represented an attempt to reconcile the particularist orientations in US cultural anthropology following the legacy of Franz Boas and his students with those rather middle-range orientations of British social anthropology that mostly followed A.R. Radcliffe-Brown, and to unite both traditions against the universalist claims of G.P. Murdocks HRAF comparison. In that sense the notion of controlled comparison was directed against statistical random procedures of choosing examples for comparison. Instead, it argued for selective, qualitative priorities in anthropological comparison and in its choice of examples for comparison. That first sense of the term today has become a common feature of almost all forms of anthropological comparison. An important second meaning of the term refers to the actual criteria of comparison and to which empirical properties within the chosen cases they relate, as discussed in the next paragraph.

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3 Criteria of comparison. This crucial third design factor requires analytical activities at two levels and will result in the identification, first, of the comparative criterion marker(s) and, second, of the empirical criterion feature(s). The further specification of both forms of criteria always requires repeated adjustments that may well continue into advanced phases of the final analysis. Comparative criterion markers specify the crosscutting sub-topics that you want to assess and compare in similar ways among all the examples selected for a comparative analysis. Khulud, for instance, raised a comparative research question about social interactions with senior people in West Africa and in North America. To pursue that question, she employed loosely defined (and debatable) comparative criterion markers such as elder peoples frequency of weekly conversations with family members, residence proximity in relation to ones family, and advice-seeking mechanisms, which could be applied to most of her cases while simultaneously serving her research interest in cultural critique. The empirical criterion features designate the fieldworkbased evidence for the ways in which a particular case, or set of cases, is configured in that specific topical realm. The comparative analysis may then proceed either with a more narrative, or with a more formalized logic. This might be facilitated through the introduction of defined quantifiers and/or qualifiers such as high/medium/low for frequency of weekly conversations, or in the same neighbourhood/in a different neighbourhood or settlement for residence proximity in relation to ones family. 4 Discreteness of compared units. Theoretical approaches in anthropology with a strong background in systemic analysis and/or in life sciences have always insisted on the need to define as precisely as possible the limits of the units to be compared. For my part, I tend to regard this matter as primarily influenced by theoretical preferences and to legitimate theoretical pluralism in anthropology but not as an a priori methodological necessity. Their inter- and transdisciplinary engagements require utmost precision in this regard from some anthropologists, but a correspondingly different engagement does not demand the same from others among us (nor could it be answered to for that matter). In fact, an era of increasingly rapid transformations including deterritorialization, mobility, diaspora contexts, and related phenomena makes it highly advisable for considerable segments in global anthropology to actually insist on the legitimacy and necessity of working with processual and loosely defined boundaries for the sets of cases they plan to compare. In sum, addressing the limits of those clusters or units to be compared

is indeed important but whether this is done in a very loose or in a very precise manner is not a principled a priori methodological requirement, but dependent on those theoretical orientations that inform the central research question. 5 Scale of comparison. This fifth key design factor includes important pragmatic consequences of a weakest link type, since scale always has to do with abstraction (Wergin and Neveling 2010). If a comparative analysis is focused on a small group of cases, each of which can be analysed to an equal extent and in an equally detailed manner, then the fifth design factor requires the transformed representation of all these cases according to a correspondingly comparable scale. If, on the other hand, a comparative analysis discusses one main set of ethnographic examples in much more detail than all the other cases that are to be compared with the first one, and with each other, then that remaining group of other cases has to be transferred into one scale that allows their joint representation. In both alternatives, those cases as available on the record with the highest level of abstraction either predetermine to an extent the overall scale of comparison, or they have to be left out from the analysis because they are too highly abstracted. The publication of ethnographic fieldwork already represents a selective abstraction from realworld experience, and comparison represents an additional level of abstraction from that, which always includes important elements of qualitative translation from one level to the other. The quantitative limitations and the qualitative priorities in anthropological comparison thus require that the question of scale be handled with utmost care, and that the cases chosen for comparison be translated with transparency and pragmatic empathy (Gingrich and Banks 2006) into the required scale.

Choice Matters
The example of Boriss book publication has shown that the actual choice of one specific method of anthropological comparison may come along during the very last phase of analysis and writing, and that there is nothing wrong with that. The following list neither represents a complete inventory, nor a menu to choose from. This is merely an overview of some among those comparative methods in anthropology that have been most frequently applied in recent years. I confine myself to a shorthand description of key characteristics, and to references for appropriate examples. 1 Binary comparison: in a critical and self-reflexive way, this may be employed for cultural critique

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as in Khuluds case, or as a more sober and distanced contrast of one analysis against the other, as in Margaret Locks study of menopausal experience in Japan and in her resident country Canada (Lock 1995). This procedure requires even more attention to the avoidance of stereotypes than comparison normally does. 2 Regional comparison: perhaps the most conventional, and most widely respected, comparative method among the older national traditions in anthropology, as in US cultural anthropologys area studies, or in British social anthropologys classic African Political Systems (Fortes and EvansPritchard 1940), or in French structuralisms key work Mythologiques (Lvi-Strauss 19691981). The more contemporary, transnational usages address in new forms political power in Melanesia (Godelier and Strathern 1991), neo-nationalism in Western Europe (Gingrich and Banks 2006), and many other topics. Simultaneously, social scientists, historians, and anthropologists in the Global South strive to decentre their work from North American and West European hegemonies, by building up and reinforcing mutual cooperation among themselves. This indicates a new, rising relevance for regional comparison in anthropologys fields of intersection with postcolonial studies (Chen 2010: 227). In regional comparison the temporal level of comparison should remain controlled and transparent if not equal. 3 Temporal comparison: already discussed in the third section of this chapter as one possible exception to the priority of fieldwork. The emphasis on specific historical sequences implies that in temporal comparison, the regional level should remain transparent and controlled if not identical. 4 Distant comparison: from the outset, this method presupposes different regional and temporal contexts, balanced by a very elaborate and precise central research question. In a way, the main dimensions in the work of Mary Douglas represent an important cornerstone of this methodological choice (1966, 1970), insofar as her wider theory of group and grid as two central dimensions (or criteria) for comparing human societies was originally based on her comparative analyses of values and law among the Lele, in the Old Testament, and in European societies. More recent and very good examples of distant comparison are offered in Ulf Hannerzs Cultural Complexity (1992) through his examination of cultural creativity in Calcutta (in the early nineteenth century), Vienna (late nineteenth and early twentieth century), and Los Angeles (1950s and 1960s), or by Thomas Fillitz for the anthropology of art (2002). An unorthodox specialized version of this approach is Comparison at a

distance, as recently proposed by Antonius Robben (2010) for times and cases such as Iraq in the years since Saddam Husseins fall. 5 Shifting time/space comparison: this challenging method accompanies phenomena across various periods and sites. Pioneer works in this realm were, to an extent, Eric Wolfs analysis of the spread of capitalism into indigenous worlds (1982), or Sidney Mintzs research on sugar (1985). More recent exemplary studies analyse diasporic communities and their histories (Manger 2010), or strategies of coping with the consequences of global crises, such as Kirsten Hastrups Waterworlds project. As a concluding remark, a reminder is apposite. Communicating the results of comparative analyses is important. Others may benefit from learning about the reasons for failure. If the comparative analysis worked out successfully, then the results deserve an elaboration that responds to the original research question: a contribution to pragmatically solving a puzzle, and/or a middle-range theory, a specified general insight, or an anthropological critique.

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