Apples And…

October 29, 2009

Or: A Brief Post on the Logic of Comparison

One thing that positivists really love to do is compare things. I hear you asking why. Answer: because when you compare things it lets you say interesting stuff about them! I think that justification is crap. Proponents would say that you can never really know anything about anything unless you know how it exists in relation to something. For example, if you want to know what women are like, you also have to study men, in order to see how they’re different. This is probably the historian in me, but if I can find that 60% of women think one thing or another, it doesn’t matter how that sits in relation to men; I have found out something interesting about women. Here’s the catch, though, that information is rather useless unless I can contextualize it. It is just a raw number. It is interesting, and I can say things about it, but the utility of the data can’t really travel very far from me.

This is where comparison is a great tool, but there are other situations in which it simply isn’t applicable. Comparing across societal paradigms (I hate that word so much, but I couldn’t think of a better one.) is one. I think this is particularly true across time. Comparing the function of Athenian democracy and a modern, Western one is of limited utility in understanding either. The best way to understand Athenian democracy– comparatively– would be to compare it to a different contemporary system of governance. Likewise, the best way to understand a modern democracy is by comparing it to a current alternative system. The two democracies look similar structurally, but they sit in entirely different positions within their respective worlds.

It is also dangerous to pull back the focus too far and expect to still be able to make decent comparisons. Iran being a Middle Eastern Country does not qualify it to stand in as representative of the Middle East in all scenarios, just as The United States being a North American country does not qualify it to stand in for an entire continent when making comparisons. So, comparison is useful, but limited, and it has to be used judiciously.

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