Center for Interdisziplinary Research

A World of Comparisons, Dynamics, Contexts, Perspectives

Date: February 3 -4, 2011

Convenors: Franz-Josef Arlinghaus (Bielefeld), Ulrike Davy (Bielefeld), Bettina Heintz (Bielefeld), Willibald Steinmetz (Bielefeld)

The ubiquity of public comparisons is an everyday experience. Yet, the social sciences have so far failed to address comparisons as a communicative phenomenon in its own right. Although comparisons lie in the background of many historical and sociological studies, their social significance remained profoundly underestimated both in theory and in empirical research. Therefore, the conference will discuss the role of comparisons in creating social order, their self-enforcing dynamics, and their social effects.

The basic assumption of the proposal is that comparisons are a constitutive element of creating social order. It seems that this is grounded in the structure of communicated comparisons itself, as we understand them. Comparisons combine an assumption of sameness with the observation of differences. Comparing consists of two steps. Making comparisons, first, implies that the objects to be compared are considered to be similar in at least one respect (assumption of commensurability). Second, comparing requires criteria (tertia comparationis) that enable us to observe differences between the objects deemed to be comparable (identification of differences). Ranking law schools, for instance, implies that we first classify them, irrespective of their diversity, as institutions of higher education. Second, we need indicators in order to detect their differences. Whether phenomena are comparable or not is a matter of social negotiation, not a natural fact. The history of official statistics is a striking example for the relation between comparisons and the social construction of similarity. The national census, for instance, was invented only when the common personhood of the people to be counted was deemed more significant than their social differences. Furthermore, we presume that in modern times, comparisons develop self-enforcing dynamics: It is very difficult for a university or a company to ignore communicated comparisons in the field of academics or economy respectively. Rather, the single entities observe each other in respect of the (presumed) criteria of these comparisons and – one way or the other – take them into account when planning future actions. In this respect, the way comparisons are communicated plays a decisive role for their acceptance. If based on statistics and numbers put into tables – as usually is the case in modern times – comparisons take on a rational and objective form that facilitates their acceptance. What is more: Numbers and tables are able to strip off regional and cultural peculiarities to a large extent, often included in comparisons otherwise communicated. Comparisons communicated this way have the effect that universities, companies, states and sports clubs observe each other world-wide without the interference of international institutions. Globalization, it seems, is in large part based on communicated comparisons.

Of course, comparison as such is not a modern phenomenon. In premodern society with its estates and hierarchies, comparisons are part of every-day communication. But it seems that this social phenomenon took on other forms and had other effects than in modern times. Instead of tables and numbers, speech, clothing and the placing of a person in a given room seem to be the media used for communicating comparisons during the middle ages and early modern period. What is more: it seems that premodern comparisons lack self-enforcing dynamics, so typical for comparisons in modern times. The causes of this are largely unknown. Discussing comparisons in a long-term perspective, we presume, offers good prospects to gain new insights into the basic structures of modern and premodern society alike.

List of Questions

The conference language will be English.

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