Where Have the Comparisons Gone? (Should We Blame the Grinch?)

From the Series: Comparison?

Let me set out the facts of the mystery as I understand them. (Later, I will explain the reference to Dr. Seuss’s Grinch.)

Comparison has been part of anthropology for over two millennia. It is central to the discipline. Herodotus’s classic descriptions of the Persians, Assyrians, Egyptians, and Scythians vis-à-vis the Greeks draw on comparison. Likewise, it occurs in Cook’s classic 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, James Frazer (1890, 1900, 1906–15) 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, Henry Lewis Morgan (1877) 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,” 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. (Boas 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 (1965, 364; see also, 1954, 748) explains:

[Boas’s] 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.

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’s students, for example, still emphasized comparison. Thirty-two years after Boas’s critique, Margaret Mead’s (1928) Coming of Age in Samoa became an anthropological classic with the broader public. It involves a comparison of Samoan and American adolescence. Ruth Benedict’s (1934) Patterns of Culture 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’s historical method. As Eggan and others suggest, the emphasis was on specifics and not on synthesis.

Things Change in the 1950s and 1960s

Eggan (1954, 759) 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. 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.

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 (1956, 260) 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.” Eggan (1965, 357), writing nine years later, voiced a similar sentiment. Let me name a few studies to jog readers’ memories: S. F. Nadel’s (1952) “Witchcraft in Four African Societies”; Elman Service’s (1955) “Indian-European Relations in Latin America”; and Eric Wolf’s (1957) “Closed Corporate Peasant Communities in Mesoamerica and Java.” Marshall Sahlins (1958) examined Social Stratification in Polynesia and then “The Segmentary Lineage” between the Tiv and Nuer in respect to predatory expansion (Sahlins 1961). Irving Goldman (1970) compared a range of Polynesian societies in Ancient Polynesia Society.

Comparison Today

Today, comparisons, especially such controlled comparisons, have lost their popularity. There are still comparisons—note, for example Eric Wolf’s (1982) classic Europe and the People Without History. 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 (1994, 85) observes in the above article, reminds us “that energetic debates about the intellectual place of comparison are missing among today’s anthropological agendas.” In a 1987 book titled Comparative Anthropology, Ladislav Holy (1987, 13), 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.” Just this year, Matei Candea (2019, 1) suggests, “in the main, discussions of comparative method and epistemology [have] for some time been mothballed.”

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 (2019) 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 (1983), for example, 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.

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.

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?

Why have explicit forms of comparison, especially of the Goldilocks version, become diminished, to the degree they have, today?

This brings us to Dr. Seuss’s (1957) How the Grinch Stole Christmas! Following Mary Douglas’s (1966) Purity and Danger, 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.

Anthropology’s present difficulties . . . are entwined with our inability to move toward broader, more comparative syntheses that provide insights that are valued by those beyond the discipline.

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?


Benedict, Ruth. 2005. Patterns of Culture. New York: Mariner Books. Originally published in 1934.

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.” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 26.

Boas, Franz. 1940. “The Limitations of the Comparative Method of Anthropology.” In Race, Language and Culture, edited by Franz Boas, 270–80. New York: Macmillan. Originally published in 1896.

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

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 E. Spiro, 357–72. New York: Free Press.

Frazer, James. 1996. The Golden Bough. New York: Penguin Books. Originally published in 1922.

Freedman, Derek. 1986. Margaret Mead and Samoa: The Making and Unmaking of an Anthropological Myth. New York: Penguin Books. Originally published in 1983.

Goldman, Irving. 1970. Ancient Polynesia Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hofstadter, Richard. 1964. “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Harper’s Magazine, November.

Holy, Ladislav. 1987. “Description, Generalization and Comparison: Two Paradigms.” 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 Le Roy Thomas, 259–92. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Mead, Margaret. 2001. Coming of Age in Samoa. New York: Harper Perennial. Originally published in 1928.

Morgan, Lewis Henry. 1995. Ancient Society. Tucson: University of Arizona Press. Originally published in 1877.

Nadel, S. F. 1952. “Witchcraft in Four African Societies: An Essay in Comparison.” 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.

Sahlins, Marshall D. 1958. Social Stratification in Polynesia. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

———. 1961. “The Segmentary Lineage: An Organization of Predatory Expansion.” American Anthropologist 63, no. 2: 322–45.

Service, Elman R. 1955. “Indian-European Relations in Colonial Latin America.” American Anthropologist 57, no. 3: 411–25.

Seuss, Dr. 1957. How the Grinch Stole Christmas! New York: Random House Children's Books.

Wolf, Eric R. 1957. “Closed Corporate Peasant Communities in Mesoamerica and Central Java.” Southwestern Journal of Anthropology 13, no. 1: 1–18.

———. 1982. Europe and the People without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.