Comparing comparisons: ancient East and West

Comparing comparisons: ancient East and West

Walter Scheidel (Stanford University)

Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, April (2013)


In the study of History, comparative analysis remains rare. Explicit reflection on the uses, methodology and problems of historical comparison is rarer still. In this respect, the divide between History as an academic discipline that has at least occasionally been counted among the Social Sciences and fields such as Economics, Political Science and Sociology is as wide as it can be. I have decided to focus on the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of comparative history rather than present a specific case study. This decision is in part motivated by what have turned into years of lingering anxiety about the ‘proper way’ to conduct comparative history, a concern that I suspect may well be shared by many others. In my case, these doubts have been heightened by my own efforts to encourage comparative interests in others – a case of the one-eyed leading the blind? I am above all keen to learn what others think about these issues, and hope that these cursory remarks will stimulate fruitful reflection and discussion. In my experience there is always a temptation to ‘get on with it’ – plunge into a discussion of specific case studies – and I want to encourage some soul-searching on why we think a comparative perspective is worth adopting, and more importantly on how to go about applying it in practice and developing it to greater maturity.

The key questions are, what is comparative history good for; how should it be done; and how has it been done (or not) so far? First of all, is it worth it? Comparison combats hyperspecialization, the great bane of modern professional scholarship. Neither Classics nor East Asian Studies have displayed much resistance to this particular affliction. Vasunia 2011:224 notes that comparisons “generate inferences … that speak to the concerns of other times and places” – surely a welcome bonus feature for historians of early periods who may sometimes find themselves at the margins of their discipline. Comparison defamiliarizes the deceptively familiar. By observing alternatives, the characteristics of one’s “own” case becomes less self-evident, and appreciation of what is possible increases accordingly. Geoffrey Lloyd and Nathan Sivin (2002:8) even regard this as the principal benefit: “The chief prize is a way out of parochialism.” Comparison improves our understanding of X as it took different forms in different societies, whereas “[s]cholars whose work is confined within a single cultural area easily suppose that its ways are natural and inevitable.” Could it be that this is more of a problem in intellectual history – one ‘philosophy’, ‘science’, ‘medicine’ – than in other areas of History? Or should we take this observation to mean that any complacency about the “natural and inevitable” interferes, or seemingly obviates the need for, explanation of observed traits?

Click here to read this article from Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics

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