Studying Comparisons

By Simon Rowedder

If we remember that those we study are also studying us as well as themselves, and that they are all engaged in the human exercise of understanding the play of cultural difference and similarity, we may be able to contribute to making comparison the fruitful, congenial, and open-ended conversation that the discipline’s ethical as well as intellectual commitments demand.

(Herzfeld, 2001, pp. 272-273)

The Scholarly Privilege of Comparison and Representation

Anthropologist Michael Herzfeld importantly foregrounds the role of ethnographic interlocutors in contributing to highly reflective comparative research. However, as it becomes apparent throughout his article, his call for a “reflexive comparativism” is largely confined to the scholar’s (i.e. mostly his) reflection on his own personal background and academic trajectory. In the end, interlocutors are left with their passive role to merely react to theories prominently voiced by the respective scholar. Thus, deploying “an unself-conscious standardization of vocabulary” (Anderson, 1998, p. 33), it is the scholars who are privileged to translate empirical observations into the self-referential language of their and their readers’ epistemological familiarity.

Selection of different ethnic Tai Yuan textile patterns in Luang Namtha province, Laos | Picture: Simon Rowedder

In area studies, or in Southeast Asian Studies in which I have been institutionally trained and am currently conducting research and teaching, the standardized vocabulary for possible comparison largely relies on spatial constructs across local, national and regional scales within a certain area. Scholarly spatial constructions are thus almost the only dimension along which we compare and make sense of our research subjects. Academic—not necessarily the interlocutors’—understandings of space, area or region determine research questions and directions. The unquestioned areal reliance is also visible in the current, seemingly innovative, push for inter-area or comparative area studies. Attempts to transgress, or scale up, arbitrarily area or nation-state boundaries across China, South Asia and Southeast Asia through novel spatial imaginations such as “Zomia” (van Schendel, 2002) or the“Southeast Asian Massif” (Michaud, 2000) again arise from deep-rooted scholarly intuition of primarily spatial comparison. In turn, these yield specific research directions and agendas which all powerfully claim to explain or to make sense of living conditions and practices through respective external scalar and spatial interventions. It remains the privilege of the scholar to re-invent and re-define areas and regions—to use a “new grammar of representation” (Anderson, 1998, p. 34)—in order to draw, or imagine, comparisons which are meaningful, at least to themselves. In this sense, comparative research impulses mainly result from, and respond to, scholarly representation, while running the risk of ignoring empirical variations and deviations.    

Towards an Ethnography of Comparison

Thai, Lao and Chinese traders encounter each other as they reload cargo on trucks bound to China. Taken at Khonekeo port on the banks of the Mekong River, the Thai-Lao border | Picture: Simon Rowedder

Therefore, we should pay more serious attention to the ethnographic voices from the field. Instead of conveniently bringing their voices into dialogue with—or, strictly speaking, attaching them to the monologue of—academic comparative frameworks and representations, we should strive for an ethnography of comparison, crafted by our interlocutors in their own terms on the ground. Before pondering on how to locate ethnographic observation within suitable and intuitive comparative coordinate systems, we should carefully observe how, and whether at all, the people themselves, who we claim to study, are comparing. Taking vernacular discourses and practices of comparison seriously as an empirically central research object, and not merely as necessary, and often institutionally demanded, methodology, might yield “counter-intuitive” insights necessary for genuinely fresh ways of understanding, and eventually critically scrutinizing and theorizing, areal constructs such as Southeast Asia “inside out”. As Benedict Anderson (2016, p. 126) argues, “the most instructive comparisons […] are those that surprise.” We should be open to these surprises, and embrace the fact that these do not necessarily result from our scholarly genius alone. While there is certainly no methodological manual available, we can rely on open-mindedness, cognitive and interpretive flexibility and creativity to conduct meaningfully comparative ethnography. Being open enough to better integrate—and not subordinate—the comparative frames of our ethnographic interlocutors, we might be indeed able to realize Herzfeld’s call to make “comparison the fruitful, congenial, and open-ended conversation.”

This heightened ethnographic sensitivity would force us to go beyond treating our empirical cases merely as ornamentation of our well-established grand, “serialized” (cf. Anderson, 1998) narratives. Before we can “compare comparisons”, we need to “study comparisons” – not only within scholarly spheres, but even more so in the “vernacular realm” where ethnography ultimately takes place.

References

Anderson, Benedict. (1998). The Spectre of Comparisons: Nationalism, Southeast Asia, and the World. New York: Verso.

Anderson, Benedict. (2016). A Life Beyond Boundaries: A Memoir. London: Verso.

Herzfeld, Michael. (2001). Performing Comparisons: Ethnography, Globetrotting, and the Spaces of Social Knowledge. Journal of Anthropological Research, 57(3), 259-276.

Michaud, Jean (ed.) (2000). Turbulent Times and Enduring Peoples: Mountain Minorities in the South-East Asian Massif. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon Press.

Van Schendel, Willem. (2002). Geographies of Knowing, Geographies of Ignorance: Jumping Scale in Southeast Asia. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, 20, 647-668.


Simon Rowedder is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Southeast Asian Studies, National University of Singapore (NUS) and a member of the Max Weber Foundation Research Group on Borders, Mobility and New Infrastructures.


Citation: Simon Rowedder, “Studying Comparisons” in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 30.06.62020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/24296.


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