The Comparative Society
By Felix Mallin
Comparison – or the mental faculty of distinction – is one of the most fundamental ingredients of autonomous life. It aids us in the quotidian tasks of decoding language, emotions, or smells, as well as in making sense of the society and world around us. Similarly, for any form of social scientific inquiry, comparison stands as an irreplaceable methodological principle. Indeed, to state the importance of comparison seems almost trivial.
Yet not all comparison is necessarily meaningful. The value of comparison is determined by the logical framework and premises applied in the development of distinct categories. Where categories are weakly conceived, comparisons may generate little more than tautologies and truisms. Even if they were carefully developed at some point and allowed for illuminating insights, the same categories may no longer be applicable in another time or a different space. To avoid such trappings, we need to ruthlessly and repeatedly critique the premises for each comparative scheme, be they our abstractions of the nation-state, the global financial system or local cultures of exchange. Beyond doubt, this process is time-consuming, never follows a generalisable template, and sometimes requires a high degree of willingness to overthrow once dearly held assumptions.
Comparisons are more than academic thought experiments
In our personal lives, the effects of academic comparison are most felt when they serve political decisions. Once translated from the realm of ideas into policy, legislation, and economic programmes, the political execution of ill-conceived comparative logics is bound to produce damaging implications for society. A case in point is the “quantitative revolution” that took hold of various social science disciplines in the 1960s and has been reanimated in the advent of “big data”. The excessive focus on quantifying all aspects of social life posited that one could make the human experience legible by comparing large aggregate datasets.
The outcome was an expansion of indicator-driven politics (i.e. evidence-based policymaking), where far-reaching political decisions began to hinge on indices, some of the most well-known being the gross-domestic product (GDP), human development index (HDI) and Gini coefficient. Since their inception earlier in the twentieth century, countries and their citizens have been placed on global scales of rich to poor, developed to undeveloped, educated to uneducated, with little heed to other forms of geographical or cultural differentiation. Sweeping “development” schemes were deployed on the basis of these indices and continue to do so up to the present day. Even societal well-being was henceforth presented to us as points or vectors on a graph.
Almost ironically, the impetus of quantitative comparison has made its way back to regulate the professional freedom of academics, in large part commanded by the competitive logics of our economic system. In a world where metrics are constantly created and easily available, it is not uncommon to find intellectual pursuits increasingly governed by considerations of citation metrics, successful funding rates, and university league tables.
The long trend of quantifying all facets of reality has not gone unchallenged. As a response to such abstractions of the qualities of time, space, and society to numbers, scepticism about quantitative predominance grew in disciplines such as geography, in the form of a revival in humanist thought and qualitative reasoning. Many scholars began to reject quantitative comparisons for the ways in which they overrode concrete lived experience. Instead, they sought refuge in philosophies that placed primary importance on individuals’ narratives. Some opined that the only tool to understand reality (if there existed one) was to juxtapose the mosaic of different perspectives against each other. Comparison, in these views, was essential because there is no universal, only relative or situated, truth. The corresponding rejection of universality meant that moral principles could no longer be attributed to an inherent human nature. This mode of social scientific inquiry was thus neatly bound to the premise that societal phenomena could only be explained by their specific parochial contexts, rather than a common human experience, such as the expansion of the capitalist market economy or relations of class struggle. Yet, one need only look at the simultaneous emergence of mass protests and civil unrest in many parts of the world during the past two years to be reminded that universal experiences may still hold some weight in academic postulations.
We ought not to compare for comparison’s sake
In this entry, I have briefly reflected on two polar ends of comparative thinking: one, comparison as the extreme quantification of lived reality; and the other, comparison as mere juxtaposition. In the former, the objective appearance of computed quantitative models run the risk of overwriting social reality. In the latter, one could polemically argue that little is left for us to meaningfully compare in a world where every narrative is only relative to any other. The recent vogue for and wide proliferation of comparative research across the social sciences and humanities holds promise in bridging these intellectual divides. Ultimately, however, our emphasis should be on constantly questioning the actual rationale for comparison, each with its unique set of premises, lest we risk comparing for comparison’s sake.
Felix Mallin is a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Department of Geography, National University of Singapore (NUS) and a member of the Max Weber Foundation Research Group on Borders, Mobility and New Infrastructures.
Citation: Felix Mallin, “The Comparative Society” in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 17.12.2020, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/26007.