Comparing Comparisons – Introduction and Overview

By James D Sidaway and Franz Waldenberger

Group picture of the workshop participants | DIJ, December 2019

How and why do we compare in the social sciences and humanities? These are enduring questions. On 2nd and 3rd December 2019, a group of scholars affiliated with the Max Weber Research Group at the National University of Singapore and researchers from the German Institute for Japanese Studies (DIJ) met at the DIJ in Tokyo to compare notes on comparisons. Most of the 17 participants were at the postdoc stage of their academic career. They covered a wide range of disciplinary backgrounds (anthropology, economics, sociology, history, geography, psychology, area studies and linguistics), although our title here is inspired by published reflections on comparative law (Chodosh, H. E. 1999, Comparing Comparisons In Search of Methodology. Iowa Law Review, 84, 1025-1038) and one of us had previously co-authored an article on comparative methods at the interface of geography and area studies, the meeting was a conspicuously cross-disciplinary event. Each delegate presented their vantage point on/experience of comparison, followed by discussion. Some disciplines, such as anthropology, are more explicit about the way that every single case study contains comparisons, such as the way that the social context of observers stands out and cultural translation is integral to research, analysis, and writing. And some themes, economic trajectories, demography, or marriage patterns, for example, frequently become the basis to stage comparisons. But what do these take for granted? What drives them?

The presentations and discussions on these questions in Tokyo ranged over three broad – intersecting – themes.

The achievements, limits, and seductions of methodological nationalism

Comparison is back in fashion. In some fields, urban studies for example, it has spawned a vast literature and become the etiquette for discussions of appropriate focus and methods. The advent of big data and AI debates revolving around this have also rejuvenated comparative quantitative research. In other fields, however, such as economics, comparison peaked long ago. There is a complex and uneven historical variance across disciplines.

Of course, many studies, make little comparative aspiration, yet once published, others may feed them into their own comparison. But even for those with aspirations to do so, and there have been growing institutional encouragement to compare, on the part of funding bodies for example, we frequently struggle to escape national prefixes in research and critical analysis.

Yet, there is often potential for foregrounding other relevant scales and units of analysis, in tandem with, or in lieu of the nation-state, which is so often a taken for granted, default unit of analysis. This includes firms, cities and regions and other analytical axes of divide, notably urban and rural. Or borderland, inter-state, and non-state areas, such as the debates that have been triggered by the idea that highland Asia (termed “Zomia” by some) constituted a distinctive zone of life characterized by resistance to sovereigns. Similarly, transnational, and regional networks and the interrelations of maritime spaces (under and beyond national jurisdiction) offer points of departure.

Yet national scales endure. They have deep roots in many disciplines. Indeed, they are foundational principles for some, such as international relations and so deeply written into others, such as law as to be hard to disentangle ourselves and our analyses from. The influential work of the Dutch social psychologist Gerard Hendrik (Geert) Hofstede (2 October 1928 – 12 February 2020), based on data from IBM workplaces in the 1970s, is an example of theorization on national (work) cultures that came to exercise enormous influence in business schools. Similarly, the literature on “varieties of capitalism” has become a conventional way – in some cases a method – to frame understanding of business and finance in Germany and Japan vis-à-vis other nation-states.

In the case of the now abundant literature on “varieties of capitalism”, the notion developed in a context of prior debates about national variants of socialism, as Moscow’s hegemony over communist movements broke down from the mid-point of the twentieth century. Decades on, it is arguably more useful to focus on the intersections and hybridization of forms of capitalism than to keep searching for pure national prototypes.

Yet national comparison retains analytical utility and critical pedagogic potential, in for example, the study of commemorative sites, monuments and events, which are thereby denaturalized. Examples discussed in Tokyo included the 8th May, which is Victory in Europe Day in the UK and France and Liberation Day in Germany.  We also compared how the course and memory of the Second World war is differently scripted across Asia. Such examples yielded debate about seeking similarities or differences, likely vs unlikely or surprising comparisons and longitudinal comparisons. The relative value of, to use the jargon of social science, diachronic vs synchronic comparison, looms large is some disciplines, such as linguistics.

However, a more pragmatic approach to scales and comparison is often merited, compounded by the fact that the way national figures are compiled varies. This relates to issues of translation and taken for granted starting points, which often reflect western biases in the social sciences and humanities. Such dilemmas are not easily resolved, notwithstanding decades of critique of the consequences of essentializations, generalizations, orientalism (and its mirror, orientalism-in -reverse or occidentalism) and other exoticisms.

In more mundane ways, at the meeting in Tokyo, problems in comparing, for example, “organic” agricultural production between EU member-states and Japan were an example of incommensurability, given varied certification procedures and regulations. Likewise, per capita seafood consumption cannot be reliably compared, given differences in how seafood is categorized. In the months after we met, the dreadful tally of Covid-19 has served as a salutatory reminder of the power – and the limits – of national comparison. It became clear that national systems of record varied enormously, though the dreadful tabulations of national comparison, infections, mortality, recovery, became the domains of debate in many places, though clearly the vectors of disease had no such respect for national “containers”. The limits of methodological nationalism are, sometimes, a matter of life and death.

Locating comparisons and their uses

Whereas some geographers, sociologists and anthropologists enact serial (or longitudinal) comparison, through returning to the same sites or objects of analysis over an extended period, serial comparison is also explicit in the discipline of history. Now and then. Then and there. Historians must negotiate questions about intersecting durations and make decisions over which to work with. Historiographical categories, and periods such as centuries and calendar systems and categories (post-war, post-revolution, post-socialism) are often taken for granted by other human sciences. Moreover, an historical era or moment cannot ever fully know itself by its own consciousness – and so may be viewed very differently in hindsight.

Similarly, another way of approaching comparison would be looking at the same object, but from different scholarly vantage points. This of course is the promise of -inter and multi-disciplinary work. New domains of comparison at the junctures of history, economics and sociology emerged in the twentieth century, examples included Polanyi’s writing and modernization theory, the latter bolstered by the violent mix of Cold War, decolonization, and confrontation.

Equally, cultural differences loomed large in the discussions of many delegates. Cultural background and differences in training profoundly configure much research. And the vogue for comparison in some fields yields an impulse to write comparatively, that is, sometimes, only incidentally comparative. In other words, personal connections and pragmatic considerations determine who, where and what is compared as much as anything else. But then, post hoc justifications are imposed to claim they are a useful or valid comparison. Comparison becomes a discursive strategy, a rhetorical device. Such opportunistic and pragmatic underpinnings deserve to be more fully acknowledged. Moreover, much like historical categorizations are only cast in relief when we have stepped outside/beyond them, the idea that individual scholars will transparently know themselves and fully understand the basis on which they decide who/what/where and how to compare is naive.

In discussing alternatives, long established methods of abstraction, that were developed in dialectical analysis, including Marxism entered our discussions. Such methods seek to understand the relational quality of things, to approach them as variously, moments, conjunctures, concrete, abstractions and processes. Dialectics, it was argued by several delegates, needs to be taught to fresh generations of graduate students. The question can or should one compare is thereby replaced with questions about how to compare. Our discussion also explored assertions that some things, in part by virtue of their internal richness (this point has sometimes been claimed by some traditional, canonical, scholarship of Islam) are only comparable with themselves. However, counter-currents frequently come from governments and funding agencies, who – on their own terms – will want us to justify research in terms of policy impacts, which are often based on a thin notion of comparison. Politicians, civil servants – and social movements – will often use comparisons, or instrumentalize comparative perspectives for their own purposes. Nation-state and policy narratives, architects and political parties will invoke historical and geographical comparisons, new Roman empires and Caesarism, revived Silk Roads (accompanying China’s Belt and Road Initiative), reanimated Caliphates or the Shah of Iran’s invocation of classical Persian empire or the Khmer Rouge’s invocation of Angkor are all examples. These analogies and claims are then folded into modernity – they are thoroughly modern. Such process, and the wider invention of tradition invite the critical scrutiny of the political uses of comparison.


A partial and, for several delegates, promising alterative to established forms of comparison is to explore relationalities. This refuses comparison as a starting point and instead focuses on co-production of sites and phenomena. How does social life in city X, for example, rest on different scales of connections that may envelop the globe? Arguably, such research is no less worldly than, for example, a multi-sited study, with globally comparative ambitions. As some delegates noted, the rise of transnational and global history has, to some extent rescaled or displaced earlier comparative impulses in history. Transnational history often looks at transnational networks and discursive spaces, so different opinions or connections within national spaces are in focus, rather than the idea of comparing such national spaces. An example is the interactive and connective discourse about “Asia” between and within Japan, Korea (where Cold War further fractured the debate) and China – and the “overseas” societies where ethnic Chinese (itself a relational category, whose meaning emerged in transnational context) are a majority.

Our closing discussions returned to some fundamental questions about what is signified by triangulation and counts as valid findings or research are invariably comparative issues, implicitly or explicitly. Nothing is beyond compare.

Citation: James D Sidaway and Franz Waldenberger, “Comparing Comparisons – Introduction and Overview,” in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 19.05.2020,

Diesen Blogbeitrag zitieren
Max Weber Stiftung (2020, 19. Mai). Comparing Comparisons – Introduction and Overview. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research. Abgerufen am 25. Juni 2024, von

Max Weber Stiftung

The Max Weber Foundation promotes global research, focused on the areas of social sciences, cultural studies and the humanities. Our research is conducted at ten institutes in various countries across the globe with different and independent fields of focus. Through our globally operating institutes, we are able to contribute to the communication and networking between Germany and our host countries or regions. By promoting academic dialogue and merging academic and non-academic employees from several countries with different cultural backgrounds, the Max Weber Foundation is able to strengthen the internationalization of research.

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