In the history of anthropology, comparative analysis has been the main analytic tool used to move beyond the particulars of ethnography. Various types of comparison has been used, from “controlled comparisons” of neighbouring communities, such as those of S. F. Nadel and F. Eggan, to far flung comparisons, such as those of A. R. Radcliffe-Brown, Margaret Mead, and C. Levi-Strauss, to the worldwide samples of G. Murdock and colleagues.

What has comparative analysis been used for? Our anthropological ancestors used comparative analysis to find patterns, more specifically associations–called by some “concomitant variations” or “co-variations"–between factor or elements or, to use the term they preferred, variables. It was their hope that knowing what went together and what did not, would aid us in explaining why things are present here but not there, or why certain patterns arise here and not there. They were trying to explain, and this meant identifying causes and effects.

An example of a concomitant variation, Radcliffe-Brown in “The Mother’s Brother in South Africa” showed a correlation in widespread cases between the indulgent relations between mother’s brother and sister’s son, on the one hand, and, on the other, the authoritarian relations between father’s sister and brother’s son which are characteristic of patrilineal descent systems.

An example of a causal explanation would be Robert Carneiro’s argument in “Slash-and-Burn cultivation Among the Kuikuru and Its Implications for Cultural Development in the Amazon Basin” that productive potential itself does not lead to greater social complexity and development, but rather necessity, as arising in physically bounded regions where population outstrips production, leads to more complex levels of organization and more intensive forms of production.

Other anthropologists have used comparative analysis somewhat differently. Claude Levi-Strauss, in The Savage Mind, compared totemic organization with Indian caste, in order to show that they can be seen as transformations of one another, or, as he (p. 127) famously put it, “castes naturalize a true culture falsely, totemic groups culturalize a false nature truly.”

Carol Ember, in “Myths About Hunter-Gatherers,” using a Murdock style statistical comparison, addresses such popular ideas (largely stemming from Richard Lee’s account of the !kung or Ju/hoansi) that among hunters-gatherers, organization is typically bilateral, women bring in most of the food, hunters-gatherers are peaceful, etc., by examining a world wide sample of hunters-gatherers. Here comparison is used in aid of accurate descriptive generalization, of discovering what is statistically normative among a particular universe.

It has been said that comparative analysis is what anthropologists can pursue in the absence of experimental laboratories. Or, to put it another way, the world and its workings are the laboratory of the anthropologist, and comparison is the experimental technique.

So much about the past. What now? What place does comparison have in contemporary and future anthropology? And how would you use comparative analysis to advance your own research and understanding?

Views: 2073

Replies to This Discussion

Alexandre writes,

What struck me, though, was the way in which Leroi treated different examples. For an Inuk one: "It's not very entertaining, it's just a man, sitting on an ice floe, groaning to himself." (Not what I'd call very respectful, but maybe I misunderstand this.)
For a Norwegian one: "It's gorgeous"
(Without giving any description of the singer besides "nationality,")

Yes, I can see how it would be upsetting if one took these characterizations seriously. I didn't. I took them, instead, to be the kind of rhetorical flourish (sometimes tasteless jokes) that scientific presenters use to liven up the presentation of analytic results based on entirely different data. These are, in my view, a way for the scientist to humanize what might otherwise be taken as a soulless attempt to reduce music to a set of analytic metrics. The danger is, of course, that some in the audience may take the jokes seriously and thus take offense. Or worse, they may take the jokes to be part of the analysis, which, in my view, they are not.

I am also a bit more forgiving on the who was doing genomics first question. Lomax may have played with the idea that there was some genetic component behind differences in musical styles (I say "may" deliberately, since I simply do not know). What we know for sure, however, is that he didn't have access to the analytic apparatus that Leroi alludes to when he mentions "mitochondrial DNA" or multiple servers running for 24 hours to generate the clusters that he is interpreting. One suspects that when Leroi talks about bringing techniques from genetic mapping to music, what he has in mind is a bit more sophisticated than what Lomax was thinking of.

Can Leroi's analysis be refined by taking into account more of what musicologists know? Of course it can. Any retrospective analysis of an old data set is constrained by the limits of the data. Brian Ino introduced Leroi to Lomax. Perhaps you could introduce him to Kubik. I wonder what they'd come up with if they were working together.
I have just succumbed and (trying to ignore the price, US$112) ordered myself a copy of The SAGE Handbook of Case-Based Analysis, partly because it contains Ron Brieger's "On the Duality of Cases and Variables: Correspondence Analysis (CA) and Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA)," which I have mentioned before as a technical but fascinating discussion of the logic of small-n comparisons. Anyone care to join me in reading and thinking about this monster from an anthropological perspective?
As is often the case, I enjoy your attitude, regardless of whether we disagree or agree.
Of course, my reaction to Leroi is biased. And none of it is personal. In fact, I can probably so gracious as to take his more problematic comments to be made in jest. I still have problems with some methodological issues and with the core assumptions. But it seems to allow us to talk about comparative research.
According to Grauer, Lomax did much more to entertain some vague notions about genetics. Apparently, he worked directly with geneticists. Of course, genetics at the time constituted a much different field from what it is now. But Grauer does seem to have valid points about Leroi's (perhaps absent-minded) lack of consideration for the genomics already present in Lomax. There was also a more personal dimension (possibly not giving that much credit to people like Lomax's daughter or Grauer himself). But there remains this idea that there wasn't much dialogue between Leroi's team and people who've been working on these issues for a while.
Something which may be important to note: ethnomusicology comes in large part from comparative musicology, which was a discipline having much more to do with psychology, physics, and neurology than with anthropology. (At the time.) Leroi's work could easily be reconnected to these traditions. But it doesn't sound like he's really open to enter a conversation with music scholars. I may be completely off and I'd be really happy if Leroi and Kubik were to collaborate. But I probably won't be the one to make these contacts possible. The effort it may require isn't something I'm currently willing to make. In other words, I simply don't care so much about comparativism to do anything besides talking about it, semi-publicly.
And the reason I don't care so much is that comparative research doesn't usually answer the questions I think about the most. Personal preference.

Sill... Thanks a lot for your reply. It does put things in perspective.

--
Alex


John McCreery said:
Alexandre writes,

What struck me, though, was the way in which Leroi treated different examples. For an Inuk one: "It's not very entertaining, it's just a man, sitting on an ice floe, groaning to himself." (Not what I'd call very respectful, but maybe I misunderstand this.)
For a Norwegian one: "It's gorgeous"
(Without giving any description of the singer besides "nationality,")

Yes, I can see how it would be upsetting if one took these characterizations seriously. I didn't. I took them, instead, to be the kind of rhetorical flourish (sometimes tasteless jokes) that scientific presenters use to liven up the presentation of analytic results based on entirely different data. These are, in my view, a way for the scientist to humanize what might otherwise be taken as a soulless attempt to reduce music to a set of analytic metrics. The danger is, of course, that some in the audience may take the jokes seriously and thus take offense. Or worse, they may take the jokes to be part of the analysis, which, in my view, they are not.

I am also a bit more forgiving on the who was doing genomics first question. Lomax may have played with the idea that there was some genetic component behind differences in musical styles (I say "may" deliberately, since I simply do not know). What we know for sure, however, is that he didn't have access to the analytic apparatus that Leroi alludes to when he mentions "mitochondrial DNA" or multiple servers running for 24 hours to generate the clusters that he is interpreting. One suspects that when Leroi talks about bringing techniques from genetic mapping to music, what he has in mind is a bit more sophisticated than what Lomax was thinking of.

Can Leroi's analysis be refined by taking into account more of what musicologists know? Of course it can. Any retrospective analysis of an old data set is constrained by the limits of the data. Brian Ino introduced Leroi to Lomax. Perhaps you could introduce him to Kubik. I wonder what they'd come up with if they were working together.
Alexandre writes,

Something which may be important to note: ethnomusicology comes in large part from comparative musicology, which was a discipline having much more to do with psychology, physics, and neurology than with anthropology. (At the time.) Leroi's work could easily be reconnected to these traditions. But it doesn't sound like he's really open to enter a conversation with music scholars.

Alexandre, how do you get from the fact that Leroi hasn't connected with these traditions to his not being open to conversation with music scholars? Isn't it possible that he simply hasn't got around to making these connections yet?

I ask because I find myself in what I imagine is a similar situation. For the past couple of years I have been busy learning the rudiments of social network analysis, developing a database and acquiring a basic familiarity with the software I use (an area in which there is still a lot of work to be done). I have what I think are interesting results. What I haven't done yet is read systematically through what is now a couple of decades of relevant books and journals, which are scattered over disciplines as diverse as physics, cell biology, epidemiology, sociology of organizational behavior, knowledge management, political science, even some anthropology. When I present my results, which I did for the first time at Sunbelt 09, I am aware that I am inevitably not going to cite some source that someone in my audience believes to be absolutely essential. Should that individual conclude that I have no respect for that source, or the discipline from which it is taken? I can only hope that he or she will speak up and add to the stack of things I ought to do when and if I can find the time. How do I know that Leroi's attitude is different?
Clearly, I don't know much about Leroi. My comments were pure conjecture, based on my perception of this short presentation and comments from Victor Grauer (who apparently gave Leroi access to some of Lomax's material). But even with such tenuous data, my very preliminary analysis is quite likely to bedifferent from what I would do if I were to encounter your work for the first time. I can't guarantee the accuracy of any of these statements and we've been interacting for such a long time that it's a bit hard for me not to take these interactions into account. But I'm still putting it out there. Based in part on "rhetoric."
Sure, I get your point about giving Leroi the benefit of the doubt. If his more ethnocentric statements were made in jest, they "kinda fit" the context and presentation style. Yet, his presentation method, though not completely incompatible with the kind of collaboration I had in mind, as I was writing that post, the likelihood that such a celebratory approach would be accompanied by openness to the field from which much of the data set was "borrowed" seems to me fairly low. Again, I'd be ecstatic if Leroi were to prove me wrong (say, by posting a thoughtful message here or by sending something to the SEM). In other words, Leroi sounds like those people who have been reluctant to converse with researchers working in something akin to the comparative musicology field so I simply don't expect him to act very differently from those people.
You, on the other hand, make a visible effort to bridge gaps, to cross boundaries, to address older issues and approaches. I'm not saying this as a compliment nor am I merely influenced by our prior conversations. I perceive your work in a different frame. Might be my own bias, but so be it.

John McCreery said:
Alexandre writes,

Something which may be important to note: ethnomusicology comes in large part from comparative musicology, which was a discipline having much more to do with psychology, physics, and neurology than with anthropology. (At the time.) Leroi's work could easily be reconnected to these traditions. But it doesn't sound like he's really open to enter a conversation with music scholars.

Alexandre, how do you get from the fact that Leroi hasn't connected with these traditions to his not being open to conversation with music scholars? Isn't it possible that he simply hasn't got around to making these connections yet?

I ask because I find myself in what I imagine is a similar situation. For the past couple of years I have been busy learning the rudiments of social network analysis, developing a database and acquiring a basic familiarity with the software I use (an area in which there is still a lot of work to be done). I have what I think are interesting results. What I haven't done yet is read systematically through what is now a couple of decades of relevant books and journals, which are scattered over disciplines as diverse as physics, cell biology, epidemiology, sociology of organizational behavior, knowledge management, political science, even some anthropology. When I present my results, which I did for the first time at Sunbelt 09, I am aware that I am inevitably not going to cite some source that someone in my audience believes to be absolutely essential. Should that individual conclude that I have no respect for that source, or the discipline from which it is taken? I can only hope that he or she will speak up and add to the stack of things I ought to do when and if I can find the time. How do I know that Leroi's attitude is different?
What recent comparative studies would you recommend?

So many of the well-known examples are from several decades ago: Nadel on witchcraft in Africa; Wolf on peasants in Latin America; Geertz on Islam in far flung places.

One recent comparison that I thought insightful was David Riches, "The Holistic Person; Or, the Ideology of Egalitarianism," Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 6:669-685, 2000. A recent effort of mine is "The Iron Law of Politics," Politics and the Life Sciences 23:20-39, 2005.

But there must be other recent ones, beyond John's suggested Regime Shift: Comparative Dynamics of the Japanese Political Economy (Cornell Studies in Political Economy) by T.J. Pempel (the date of which is ___?).
The date for Pempel is 1998.

A few minutes playing with Google searches reveals a good deal of recent activity under the rubrics of "Comparative Politics" or "Historical Sociology."

An interesting piece that might be useful in framing this discussion is the attached review by the late Charles Tilly.
Attachments:
Yes, I do think that political scientists and sociologists have continued to do comparative studies. One well known example is Samuel Huntington's The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order. This work, often condemned by people who have read no farther than the title, is an example of the triumph of a cultural viewpoint in disciplines beyond anthropology. Clash, which in terms of policy recommendations takes a non-interventionist point of view, which should be welcomed by many, is in the end optimisitic about positive relations among civilizations. So, as you say, I think there are many such works in political science and sociology from a variety of points of view and on a range of important topics.

I wonder, though, if anthropologists have continued to use comparative analysis. Discussion on various OAC threads suggests that young anthropologists are reluctant to discuss anything beyond individuals and individual lives. If I am mistaken, I would welcome information about recent publications of comparative studies in anthropology.
Over on Savage Minds, Rex has just posted a bit of advice for anthropologists who need to generalize their in... to give them intellectual merit in the eyes of funding agencies. Speaks directly to many issues raised here.

RSS

Translate

OAC Press

@OpenAnthCoop

Events

© 2019   Created by Keith Hart.   Powered by

Badges  |  Report an Issue  |  Terms of Service