Comparative is a rather slippery term in American academic writing, and particularly in legal scholarship. The ordinary-language use of the word would indicate that a comparative study is one in which the attributes of one subject are examined in tandem with those of another in order to determine their likenesses and dissimilarities. Yet a quick look at most of what is generally viewed as "comparative law" in American legal scholarship would show that such simultaneous examination of two or more subjects is not usually to be found. Instead, "comparative" legal studies tend to be those that concentrate on a legal system that is not American, making at most a few tentative suggestions as to how the features of this other system might illuminate a problem in American law. Often explicit comparisons in the ordinary-language sense are not even attempted, although there may be implicit contrasts with commonly held understandings of American phenomena in the structure or wording of an argument.
Of course, academic lawyers are not alone in using comparative as a code for "other," non-American subjects of study. Political scientists, sociologists, and literary critics who study foreign materials are often described as comparativists, even when they concentrate all of their efforts on one foreign culture, country, or region and do not essay explicit comparisons with American or English-language phenomena. And many of these scholars do not in fact make such comparisons. Those who study other cultures and societies are likely to belong to area-studies associations and to see their main intellectual audience as others studying the same part of the world, an attitude that can only be reinforced by the low status that is generally given to area-studies