The Changing Meanings of Comparisons for Sociocultural Anthropology

By Isaac Gagne

Comparisons are invidious.

I encountered this statement early in my anthropological training when reading classic ethnographies that were written within the framework of evolutionary anthropology. In anthropology’s infancy, comparisons were as much about documenting human diversity as they were about validating European imperialism. By comparing the political, economic, religious, and social institutions of mostly agrarian or nomadic societies against the “advanced” industrialized societies, Western-trained anthropologists developed distinctions between “modern” and “pre-modern” societies which imposed a Eurocentric notion of how human societies “evolve” over time. The function of comparison within this evolutionary framework of early anthropology was to place societies along a timeline of development from putatively “primitive” human aggregations to complex modern civilizations. Needless to say, this evolutionary framework is no longer in vogue. However, the central place of identifying similarities and differences and constructing comparisons remains deeply rooted in sociocultural anthropology, and likewise the danger of invidious comparisons.

Comparison as Methodology

Fundamentally, anthropology is built on cross-cultural, comparative study. Methodologically, anthropological study involves working at the micro level but with an eye to the macro contexts, both geographically and theoretically. Conventional anthropological analysis usually proceeds from a single case study, which is “written up” as an ethnographic monograph. As Reed & Alexander (2009 para. 40) note, “even single case studies or ethnographies implicitly contain a comparison, at least to the investigator’s own meaningful social contexts, and this comparative consciousness forms an important basis for the development of theory and research.” In this sense, anthropological analysis is an implicitly comparative process rooted in what the researcher identifies as being distinctive about their research topic, which influences the kinds of questions they ask and the kinds of findings that they identify as surprising or meaningful.

Multi-sited fieldwork and transnational fieldwork has also become a common methodological feature of anthropological research. The internet has helped facilitate this, and with the global disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, there has been an even greater attention to how so-called digital anthropology and anthropological research from a distance can be conducted (e.g., Blum 2020). The pandemic has also raised new interest in the possibilities for collaborative, inter-disciplinary, and transnational comparative research, such as on different experiences of and responses to the pandemic between Asian and Western nations, or among urban and rural areas within the same country (e.g., Chaturvedi 2020; see also the Pandemic Insights webpage of the American Anthropology Association).

Interrogating Theories and Concepts through Comparative Research

Apart from methodological and conceptual comparisons, comparative research in anthropology also includes theoretical approaches, such as comparing configurations of local value systems among different communities within a single society, or between different societies, in order to reveal which taken-for-granted dimensions are actually dependent on certain sociocultural configurations and why. I will illustrate these two comparative approaches with two examples from my research. First, in the case of an internal comparison within a society: when we compare social welfare configurations of rural and urban Japanese communities, we see different attitudes towards responsibility towards neighbors, and by extension, differing notions of moral responsibilities for care within the same society (Japan). These findings reveal the relationship between urbanization and notions of community, and they also aid in constructing locally relevant policies and practices (Gagne forthcoming). Second, from a cross-cultural comparative perspective across different societies: in the case of the influence of religions in society, comparing American and Japanese notions of religious authority reveals how many values that are religiously influenced in the U.S., such as notions of charity, legal norms, sexuality, and attitudes towards right and wrong, are not governed by or primarily influenced by religious authority in Japan (Gagne 2017; 2013). Cross-cultural comparison thus provides a method of locating the socioculturally constructed contours of value systems, institutions, and practices. This enables us to identify areas of divergence that can destabilize hegemonic concepts and lead to better analytical frameworks and additional topics for future research.

Reflecting on issues of cultural translation can push us to rethink our categories of religion | Picture: Isaac Gagne.

Crucially, making cross-cultural comparisons intelligible involves the act of “cultural translation,” which is implicitly connected with structures of power among researchers and subjects, professional knowledge, and languages of discourse. Thus, as Asad (1993) has cautioned, anthropologists must always be ready to critically interrogate their own position: to translate their findings in ways that are also intelligible to the communities themselves and to be ready to open up their own languages of discourse to a comparative project of translating assumptions, norms, and conceptualizations. The comparative nature of cultural translation—of describing or analyzing concepts and social practices from one sociocultural and linguistic context in a way that is intelligible to others—often entails applying, or creating, meta-level concepts (such as “religion”) to describe social practices or formations in a language familiar to the researcher and scholarly community; but this practice is always at risk of creating false equivalences through invidious theoretical or conceptual comparisons. To give a specific example, this has bedeviled the study of religion in Japan (and elsewhere), where in the lives of many individuals, certain public rituals, secular self-cultivation movements, and private spiritual-cultivation practices overlap with and often transcend explicitly religious organizations and belief systems, blurring the boundaries between the religious and secular distinctions that are conventional analytical frames in religious studies. This has given rise to endless debates between scholars of religion about whether this or that organization or practice is really “religious,” or whether the category of religion itself is a Western concept with no straightforward equivalent in Japan (e.g., Larsson 2019). While this debate is far from settled, from an anthropological perspective, rather than describing and analyzing practices simply by forcing them into categories that we are familiar with, it may be more productive to keep in mind Asad’s call for us to “test the tolerance of [our] own language for assuming unaccustomed forms” (Asad 1993:190) in order to diversify and enrich our own repertoire of ethnographic knowledge.

In sum, by moving between theoretical abstraction and critical analyses of local differences while guarding against invidious comparisons, anthropological comparisons—in their most powerful and meaningful forms—allow us to stretch, refine, nuance, and challenge theories, norms, and concepts through case studies. In turn, this yields points of comparison for other researchers as part of an ongoing scholarly conversation.


Asad, Talal. 1993. Genealogies of Religion: Disciplines and Reasons of Power in Christianity and Islam. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Blum, Susan D. 2020. “Fieldwork from Afar.” Anthropology News website, September 10, 2020. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1483

Chaturvedi, Vinayak (ed.). 2020. The Pandemic: Perspectives on Asia. New York: Columbia University Press.

Gagne, Isaac. Forthcoming. Mapping the local economy of care: Social welfare and volunteerism in local communities.” In Ganseforth, Sonja & Jentzsch, Hanno (eds.), Rethinking Locality in Japan. London: Routledge.

Gagne, Isaac. 2017. “Religious Globalization and Reflexive Secularization in a Japanese New Religion.” Japan Review 30:153–177.

Gagne, Isaac. 2013. “Private Religion and Public Morality: Understanding Cultural Secularism in Late Capitalist Japan.” PhD dissertation, Yale University.

Larsson, Ernils. 2019. “Review of The category of religion in contemporary Japan: Shūkyō & Temple Buddhism.” Contemporary Japan 31(2):271-275.

Reed, Isaac & Alexander, Jeffery. 2009. “Cultural Sociology.” The New Blackwell Encyclopedia of Social Theory. 10.1111/b.9781405169004.2009.00020.x

Isaac Gagne is a principal researcher at the German Institute for Japanese Studies (DIJ) Tokyo. He is a cultural anthropologist with interests in issues of morality and ethics, religion and modernization, and the role of local community groups in the face of disaster and social crises.

Citation: Isaac Gagne, “The Changing Meanings of Comparisons for Sociocultural Anthropology” in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 29.01.2021,

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