Posted by: constantinakatsari | February 16, 2010

What is the point of Comparative History?

I can’t stop thinking about how comparative history works and what it really tells us. In my mind history is not a science, there is no way to make a test, and we only have hypotheses.  When I asked how can we do comparative history on something which had so many variations, the reply was that in ancient history ‘we make it up’ so it’s fine. The importance of history in my mind is not what has happened but how it affects us. It doesn’t matter when Lycurgus wrote the Spartan rules (even if it was him doesn’t really matter) because it’s what people thought and because people thought this becomes almost an ‘abstract truth’. So to learn about Sparta, Rome or Athens is to learn the story, and the effect of the story.

So History is what people thought happened, and this affects now. I don’t believe it defines the future, but it does affect the present. This gives it some importance as a social tool, but what about as a tool to see the future? Because it doesn’t have any set criteria it cannot be compared, meaning we cannot define the future. Water boils at 100 degrees, but slaves don’t all act the same, neither do their owners. I remember Constantina saying this is the only comparative history module in the country, at first I saw this as strange, but now it sort of makes sense. How can we really compare two things which have so many variables? Humans (unlike scientific things) are unique and all act differently, there is no one answer to American slavery. We can only look for the general, and even within this there are many many variables. So how can we compare something which has such fuzzy boundaries with something else which is also fuzzy. So I think a good comparative history is almost impossible, but then I also don’t really see much importance in it.

So how important do people think Comparative history is?

Alex Everden



  1. There are some points of contact. But I do agree that differences are more important. I don´t agree with the general concept of modern slavery. It was different in the carabieans, south-Eua and Brasil. Even in Brazil it have to allow for great differences betweeen north-west, cout, and café contties. I do believe that court society was very specific, with a high degree of manumission. It was probably as important in XVIIIth Minas Greias, and the ninethenn century São Paulo. But there are few evidence, do perhaps to a bias in brazilian historiagraphy thorugh the necessary emphasizing of the worst slave condition possible.

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