Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

New Directions in Quantitative Comparative Sociology

Academic journal article International Journal of Comparative Sociology

New Directions in Quantitative Comparative Sociology

Article excerpt

WIL ARTS [*]

LOEK HALMAN [**]

An Introduction

THE CONCEPT OF a comparative sociology looks, at least at first glance, very much like a contradictio in terminis. Since, to really understand tile actions, the desires, tile values of groups of human beings, we always have to compare them with those of others. The uniqueness or the universality of a social phenomenon can only be discerned when compared with other phenomena (Etzioni & DuBow, 1970: 1-2). "Actually, no social phenomenon can be isolated and studied without comparing it to other social phenomena" (Oyen, 1990: 4). It can be argued, therefore, that all "sociology is comparative -- that, as a matter of fact, sociology cannot be done without making comparisons" (Grimshaw, 1973: 3).

Nevertheles, in sociological literature a distinctive comparative method is recognized. A method that is deemed to be quite different from other sociological methods of inquiry. When the concept of comparative sociology is used, this phrase then refers to the method of comparing different societies, nation-states or cultures in order to show whether and why they are similar or different in certain respects. So on closer inspection the concept of comparative sociology is not only a legitimate designation of a macro-sociological field of inquiry, but also an indication of a special research method.

This comparative method has a long pedigree. It was already at the core of early and even proto-sociology. The founding fathers of sociology, such as Ferguson and Millar in eighteenth century Scotland, and Comte and Tocqueville in nineteenth century France, utilized cross-national, cross-cultural and cross-societal comparisons to make all-embracing causal inferences and to put their comprehensive theories to an empirical test. They did this, however, in a rather loose and unsystematic way. It was John Stuart Mill who introduced greater rigour in the mid-nineteenth century by showing that the comparative method was simply an application of the experimental method to ready-made cases. But he also showed that this method had some severe limitations compared to the experimental method.

Although the classical sociologists of the turning of the nineteenth to the early twentieth century were not as presumptuous as the founding fathers, they too used the comparative method, but in a more refined way. In criticism of Mill, Emile Durkheim concluded, that if comparison was carried out with true precision and control and yielded correlations (rather than invariant causal connections), it could qualify as a quasi-experimental method. The way to proceed, according to Durkheim, was to abstract the relevant variables and to establish measures and objective indices for them, controlling for other influences, adducing statistical correlations, and so on. "We have only one way to demonstrate that a given phenomenon is the cause of another, viz., to compare the cases in which they are simultaneously present or absent, to see if the variations they present in these different combinations of circumstances indicate that one depends on the other". Thus, for Durkheim, "the comparative method is the only one su ited to sociology" (Durkheim, 1938, 1966: 125).

A rather different method of comparison to that used by Durkheim is to be found in the work of Max Weber. His method consisted not so much in isolating factors or variables whose operations could be observed in a large number of cases, as in analyzing many concrete features of different societies. He did this in order to show how characteristics, which are in some respects similar in a number of cases, are also in other important respects different, in so far as they are affected by other features of the unique historical configuration of which they are part. The way to proceed, according to Weber, was to make qualitative assessment of relevant historical evidence in terms of its meaningful significance (cf. …

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