Comparison: The Impossible Method?

From the Series: Comparison?

While I agree with a number of Robert Borofsky's concerns in his piece for this series, 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.)

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.

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.

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.

References

Candea, Matei. 2018. Comparison in Anthropology: The Impossible Method. New York: Cambridge University Press.