The Value of Comparison

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Peter van der Veer
The Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures
  • Durham, NC: 
    Duke University Press
    , June
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Peter van der Veer’s book, The Value of Comparison, is an intelligent and critical look at the methodologies employed in anthropology, historical sociology, and adjacent fields in the humanities. Even though these fields have addressed the dangers of ethnocentrism or essentialization, van der Veer sees a growing universalism and generalizing tendency in the social sciences, which is in part due to reliance upon quantitative methodologies and empirical data. For these reasons, comparative methodologies are often written off as too general or too ethnocentric for objective scholarship, but van der Veer makes a case here for comparison as a crucial tool—if done correctly. This requires a post-Durkheimian and post-Weberian project that emphasizes historical interaction.

Drawing from a Geertzian critique of cross-cultural studies, van der Veer cautions against generalizations or essential categories (like “ritual”) through which to study comparatively. However, van der Veer also finds ethnography problematic, claiming “through close study of a fragment one is able to comment on a larger whole and that an understanding of the larger whole allows one to interpret the fragment” (25). Van der Veer argues that the emphasis on fieldwork in contemporary anthropology generates an idea of empiricism that is just as problematic as generalizations. Methods which seek a general model of human behavior, such as rational choice theory, are also seen as problematic. Instead, van der Veer favors reflexive understandings of interpretation that are multimodal and responsive to historical shifts in nationalism, migration, and globalization.

Comparison, van der Veer argues, is not merely the practice of comparing societies or institutions as whole entities, but as “a reflection on our conceptual framework as well as on the history of interactions that have constituted our object of study” (28). That is to say, a comparative framework can and should be employed, for example, to compare present arguments with existing literature on a subject, or terms that have emerged from previous studies (such as “religion”), in an effort to make the study more contemplative than static in its claim of expertise. Areas van der Veer uses to discuss and work through these ideas of a more productive comparative methodology include social inequality, nationalism, and religion.

Van der Veer uses an example of caste in India, comparing it to American racial tensions in the 1960s. Caste and race may seem quite different: ideologies related to hierarchy and religion on one hand, and ethnicity and “difference” on the other. One of the similarities which makes this comparison fruitful for van der Veer’s analysis is the recognition that both systems are rooted in slavery. “The memory of slavery and the representation of suffering in performative traditions are powerful elements in the unification of these underclasses” (37). While the cleavages in both the US and in India are connected to economic class and ethnic divisions—even within oppressed groups—the connection between labor and religious mobilization allows for a productive comparison, and a more critical look at their differences (notably the issue of criminalization and incarceration in the US, versus lack of access to basic state services in India).

A category van der Veer’s thoroughly problematizes is “civilization,” not only in Samuel Huntington’s delineations undergirding The Clash of Civilizations (Simon & Schuster, 1996), but civilization as something conceptualized as homogeneous before it is disrupted by the intrusion of the “other.” Civilizational groupings allow for easy comparisons but “do not sufficiently explore the highly fragmented and contradictory histories of these societies” (66). Increased migration has created more complex diversities in places where urbanization is paralleled by immigration, creating a “super-diversity.” These migrations (in Asia, America, Europe) have obvious differences, however, and thus require more specific comparative areas for analysis. Rather than compare presumed essential qualities of civilizations, van der Veer argues, it would be more productive to compare historical processes of state formation. For example, by looking at such formations, one can start to analyze how a group such as Muslims came to be seen as the quintessential “other” in Europe, India, and China.

The Value of Comparison gives a rather unflinching critique of Western cultural assumptions while firmly seated in the very field it scrutinizes. As an academic insider, van der Veer’s knowledge and familiarity with foundational scholarship (Max Weber, Cliffod Geertz, Shmuel Eisenstadt, Ernest Gellner, etc.) allows him to effectively redirect persistent theories in anthropology and sociology towards a more productive comparative framework. He does not merely critique traditional methods and pathways of analysis used in sociological research, but offers concrete examples and discussions where a more nuanced and complex comparative method can be applied and produce better results. Many of these examples are seated in India or China—van der Veer’s areas of expertise—and provide contexts for detailed arguments about civil culture, nationalism, iconoclasm, and exclusion. As he argues in the first chapter, “social and cultural analysis always takes place within a comparative frame” (32). The value of comparison, therefore, relies upon interdisciplinary approaches which can correct or critique generalizations made in other disciplines, as well as being part of the researcher’s methodological toolbox when understanding the subject as historically evolving and contextually responsive.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Juli L. Gittinger is Lecturer of Religion at Georgia College and State University, Milldegeville, Georgia.

Date of Review: 
September 29, 2016
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Peter van der Veer is Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity at Göttingen, Germany and Distinguished University Professor at Utrecht University. He is the author of several books, including The Modern Spirit of Asia: The Spiritual and the Secular in China and India.



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