Posted by: constantinakatsari | February 19, 2010

Comparative History: A Reassessment

Today I feel compelled to answer to Alex’s insinuation that there is no point in studying Comparative History. Obviously, since most of my research has turned towards that direction, I need to assert myself that there is a point of some kind. I also think it is necessary for the students to understand why they are submitted to the weekly torture of my seminar. So, I will explain my views in the simplest way possible.

First of all, comparisons are a major part of daily life. When we go to the supermarket, we soon realise that Asda is cheaper than Sainsburys. When we visit our grandmother, we know that she is older than our mother. When we arrive at the University, we notice that the parking space is fuller during Open Days. Similarly, historical evidence ‘tell’ us that during the nineteenth century emotions played a more important role in Victorian England and the USA than in the eighteenth century. In the same way, ancient sources reveal that the scale of the Roman economy was greater than the scale of the Athenian economy.

Once we establish the fact that comparisons are unavoidable, it is necessary to come up with the proper historical methodology. So far, sociologists and historians came up with a multitude of studies that attempted to map the right way of conducting comparative history. Among them, the sociologists Theda Scocpol and M. Sommers or the historians Peter Kolchin and Orlando Patterson are probably the most prominent (or rather the ones I follow). I am in favour of the ‘compare and contrast’ method, according to which we must highlight both similarities and differences of the societies under scrutiny. Whether the comparison is synchronic or diachronic, whether the societies are separated by insurmountable geographical boundaries or not, detailed comparative studies usually offer an entirely new and exciting perspective to the diligent student.

In all cases, the consensus is that, whichever study you undertake, you should be very careful about the choice of your material. Lamenting the fact that the amount of evidence (especially for the ancient world) is inadequate is a nihilistic approach that leads nowhere. Instead, you should ‘hunt’ for sources across a multitude of disciplines: archaeology, philology, written material, linguistics etc. Even if the evidence on one side does not match the evidence of the other period, you will still be able to come up with a valid hypothesis that is the result of logical analysis and common sense. And under no circumstances should you ‘make up’ anything!

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