A Decline of Intellectual Argument

From the Series: Comparison?

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.

Comparison . . . 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 are 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 in 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,” that is, 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 (1949) 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 in his essay in this series, 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” (Friedman and Friedman 2008, 2), the misconstrual of culture in terms of the origin of objects, rather than the way they are constructed in people’s lives, 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.

The problem, then, is more than the lack of comparison. The problem is the general decline of intellectual argument.


Agar, Michael H. 1986. Speaking of Ethnography. London: Sage.

Borofsky, Robert. 2019. An Anthropology of Anthropology: Is It Time to Shift Paradigms? Open access ed. Honolulu, Hawaii: Center for a Public Anthropology.

Friedman, Kajsa Ekholm, and Jonathan Friedman. 2008. Modernities, Class, and the Contradictions of Globalization. Lanham, Md.: AltaMira.

Lévi-Strauss, Claude. 1969 [1949]. The Elementary Structures of Kinship. Translated by J. H. Bell and J. R. von Sturmer. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.