A Comparative Consciousness

From the Series: Where Have All the Comparisons Gone?

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.

Comparative methodologies should include the interactive aspects of the global movement of people, goods, and ideas.

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. I-Sha'rawi (in Stowasser 1987, 267–68) 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 . . . As mothers, women find themselves in high regard in Islam as compared to the West.

Egyptian women often perceive that 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 women in Cairo are not. 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 women 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 the East and West.

Stanley Brandes’s (2006) Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond 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 United States. His is a moving picture elucidating how the Day of the Dead is being redepicted in both Mexico and the United States, as regards national identity in Mexico and multiculturalism in the United States; a religious and tourism holiday in Mexico for adults, in the United States 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, California 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, an animated fantasy film released by Walt Disney Pictures in 2017. 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, is critical in the dynamic of knowledge productions.

If knowledge is power, comparison . . . is critical in the dynamic of knowledge productions.


Brandes, Stanley. 2006. Skulls to the Living, Bread to the Dead: The Day of the Dead in Mexico and Beyond. Malden, Mass.: Blackwell.

Nader, Laura, ed. 2015. What the Rest Think of the West: Since 600 AD. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Stowasser, Barbara Freyer, ed. 1987. The Islamic Impulse. London: Croom Helm.