Who compares? The commodification and decolonization of comparison

By James D. Sidaway and Franz Waldenberger

Knowing from comparing

German gate – part of the former French fortress in the city of Landau, constructed between 1688 and 1691 under the guidance of Vauban, military engineer of Louis XIV | Picture: F. Waldenberger.

The German gate of the fortress in the city of Landau, the hometown of one of the authors of this blog entry, shows the head of Louis XIV of France depicted as the sun with the Latin inscription “nec pluribus impar”. The phrase is usually translated as “not unequal/inferior to many”. School kids in Landau and visiting tourists were long told that this meant there was nothing or nobody to compare the Sun King with. But there seems to be no straightforward interpretation and some obviously frustrated scholars concluded that the words are perplexing or without clear meaning. So, the three words seem to either negate the possibility of inter-personal comparison, or at the semantic level to not be comparable to any meaningful statement. However, no matter what conclusion one prefers, it can only be reached by trying to compare. The incomparable presupposes comparability. You cannot not compare.

The seven contributions to our blog offer variations of this theme as the authors reflect on and draw examples from their respective areas of specialization – anthropology, ethnography, Japanese studies, political geography, economics, cross-cultural studies, business and management research. They highlight some pitfalls of comparisons – choosing wrong measures, imposing one-sided, culturally predefined concepts and frames and/or neglecting (local) contextual factors. But they also emphasize the invaluable benefits such as gaining insights via finding common patterns or by being able to make sense of observed differences. One general conclusion from comparing the various scholarly accounts of comparative research would be: You can do it wrong or be seduced by too easy comparisons, but you cannot easily do without some.

The general conclusion holds irrespective of what methods or methodologies are applied. We sometimes explicitly emphasize comparisons when we conduct cross-cultural studies, comparative institutional analysis or comparative linguistics. But any kind of inquiry implies comparisons. It means comparing the newly discovered, observed, heard or read with the already known. When the “new data” fit our existing knowledge, they are understood and recognized. If we need to adjust or revise what we had known so far, we learn. If no integration is possible, we will either continue our research hoping that at some stage we will understand or learn, or we decide to discard the new data as “irrelevant” or exceptional, as something we cannot and perhaps do not need to understand. In some sciences, it may be flagged as an exception, meriting further investigation or as an example of non-replication. There are growing questions in social and physical sciences about why many studies are difficult or impossible to replicate or reproduce – and why these are more often cited (Serra-Garcia and Gneezy, 2021).

The inseparability of the subject and the object of comparisons

Either way, in humanities and social sciences, comparisons enable us to discern commonalities and differences, but they do not always instruct us about what should be considered as common or different. This needs to be decided, otherwise we will not know what to compare and how. It is shaped by who we are, our training, our interests, our expectations and aims, our capabilities and the cultures of the institutions and fields we work in and how our work is appraised. These reflect wider structures.

Hence, when asking what is compared, questions of by and for whom also loom large. The geographer David Harvey (1974, 23) once argued that “The debate over relevance in geography was not really about relevance (whoever heard of irrelevant human activity?), but about whom our research was relevant to [and its effects]”.  In similar context, we need to ask who compares, what, how, where and with what effects?

New trends – risks and opportunities

Commodification: Whereas the seven contributions to the blog work through a range of disciplinary vantage points, we want to close with reflections on the social relations and history of comparison. In regard of the former, state agencies and scholars are often the focus of discussions about who is assembling data, performing surveillance and comparing who with what. But much comparison – and the data on which it rests – are in corporate hands. The development of “big data” and AI are multiplying this. The scale and commodification of comparisons and their uses – refracted back into public discourse through social media and patterns of movement and consumption yields what Shoshana Zuboff (2018) termed Surveillance Capitalism. It raises a series of questions about what kind of comparisons are being made, who owns the data on which they are established and to what uses is comparison being put?

Decolonialization: The rise of the West and the imperial cultures that accompanied it tended to make the West the object against which the rest were compared. This became entangled in discourses of “religion”, “civilization” and “race”, especially in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This is part of what Walter D. Mignolo and Catherine E. Walsh (2018) call the “the colonial matrix of power”. Critical work on orientalism and under the banners of postcolonial and decolonial theory contains a wealth of alternatives. They include what Dipesh Chakrabarty (2000) termed Provincializing Europe, so that narratives of the non-Western and the precapitalist are no longer simply reduced to what Kevin B. Anderson (2016, vii) terms “a mere adjunct” to the theorization of Western capitalist societies.

To decolonize comparison entails a series of struggles, possibilities and moves. The first is to historicize comparison, excavating its genealogies. When and how did categories, oppositions and hierarchies used to establish the basis for and then stage comparisons emerge? How do these relate to imperial power? Who benefits? This vital historicization is in tandem with a second step, asking what alternative traditions exist, who formulates them, where and why? In turn, what are the implications of starting with and elaborating alternatives? The question of why, what and how to compare is thereby supplemented with ones asking on whose terms is comparison made and with what consequences?  Whilst that are many pathways for such moves (see for example, Steinmetz, 2006 on Decolonizing German theory), writing, as the two of us are, between Singapore and Tokyo, we will close with a short quote that explores the path of Asia as Method (Chen, 2010, 212):

The potential of Asia as method is this: using the idea of Asia as an imaginary anchoring point, societies in Asia can become each other’s point of reference….On this basis the diverse historical experiences and rich social practices of Asia may be mobilized to provide alternative horizons and perspectives. This method of engagement, I believe, has the potential to advance a different understanding of world history.


References

Anderson K B (2010) Marx at the Margins: on nationalism, ethnicity and non-western societies. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

Chakrabarty, D (2000) Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton University Press: Princeton NJ

Chen, K-H (2010) Asia as Method: Toward Deimperialization. Duke University Press: Durham NC

Harvey, D. (1974) What Kind of Geography for What Kind of Public Policy? Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, (63), 18-24

M. Serra-Garcia, U. Gneezy (2021) Nonreplicable publications are cited more than replicable ones. Science Advances. 7, eabd1705  https://doi.org/10.1126/sciadv.abd1705

Walter D. Mignolo, Catherine E. Walsh (2018) On Decoloniality Concepts, Analytics, Praxis. Duke University Press, Durham NC

Steinmetz G (2006) Decolonizing German theory: an introduction, Postcolonial Studies, 9:1, 3-13

Zuboff, S (2019) The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power. New York: Public Affairs


Citation: James D. Sidaway, Franz Waldenberger, “Who compares? The commodification and decolonization of comparison” in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 31.05.2021, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/28979.


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