Center for Interdisziplinary Research

ZiF Cooperation Group

Practices of Comparisons

1 January 2013 - 31 December 2016

Convenors: Franz-Josef Arlinghaus (Bielefeld, GER), Martin Carrier (Bielefeld, GER), Walter Erhart (Bielefeld, GER), Ulrike Davy (Bielefeld, GER), Angelika Epple (Bielefeld, GER)

What are comparisons?

Comparisons are constitutive elements for ordering the world and for historical change. In contrast to mere lists or classification systems, the distinctive feature of comparisons is their capacity to establish relations between units and to bring them into an intelligible order. The logical operations of comparing involves two steps. First, the objects to be compared are presumed 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 judged as comparable. Comparisons therefore imply that the units compared are of the same kind in some respect but distinct in another. (Heintz/Werron, 2012).
Even though comparisons tend to imply objectivity, they in fact are never neutral. Comparisons are not based on characteristics of different objects or, generally speaking, of different entities. Doing Comparisons is instead a specific practice, performed by actors and determined by what we would like to term 'the politics of comparisons'. These 'politics of comparisons' make specific practices of comparisons in specific historical contexts more convincing than others. As a result, in our project, we do not focus on the logical triangular operation called 'comparison', but on the practices and politics of comparisons or, in other words, we analyze what people do when they compare. We take for granted that practices and politics of comparison change over time.

Why analyzing practices and politics of comparisons?

Today, we witness a proliferation of institutionalized comparisons based on standardized performance measures: rankings, ratings or testing procedures for the evaluation of consumer goods. The spread of public comparisons and of specialized organizations providing comparative data indicates that comparisons have become an increasingly important instrument for reducing complexity.
But what do people exactly do when they compare? What effects do comparisons have? What kind of dynamics do comparisons create? Interestingly enough, practices of comparisons have rarely been dealt with explicitly in the social sciences and humanities so far. Comparisons only came under consideration when disputing the pros and cons of the comparative approach to the humanities. In contrast to the broad discussions on the methodology of comparisons, there is no sufficiently elaborated theory of comparison. After the so-called 'practice turn in contemporary theory,' (Schatzki et al. 2001) it is about time to have a new look at the long history of doing comparisons. Besides verbal expressions, practices of comparisons may also consist in the comparison by numbers, visual images or in non-verbal ways, such as clothing, postures or facial expressions, status symbols or rituals.

A new perspective on historical change and the theories of modernity

Globalization is usually described as an intensification of the structural links resulting from an expansion of material exchanges and network ties across national borders (trade, diplomatic relations, international organizations and treaties). This perspective suggests that globalization is equal to an overarching homogenization process. At second thoughts it becomes clear that this concept of globalization inherits most presumptions of modernization theory. Therefore the concept of globalization is also characterized by the shortcomings of modernization theory. During the last decade, this understanding of globalization has come under fire. As a result, a second mechanism of globalization came to the fore: The crowing divergence of different world regions but also of different localities within different world regions. It is now widely accepted that the process of globalization combines both, homogenization and heterogenization and as well, as Giddens would have it, de- and re-territorialization (Giddens, 1990). However, the relation between both processes has not yet been understood sufficiently.
We would like to suggest, that the mutual effects of both mechanisms could be better explained by analyzing the practices and politics of comparison. There are many reasons for this. Firstly, worldwide comparisons are perhaps the most interesting case of "imagined" relations. Historical studies, for example, show that the mutual observation and comparison of distant countries, which started in the Middle Ages and has intensified since the 18th century, played a pivotal role in initiating globalization processes. The comparative description of formerly separate cultures and regions intensified the awareness of being part of "the world as a whole" and led to perceiving one's own social arrangements (religious practices, political order, family structures) as one possible option among others. Today, the proliferation of global performance measurements and evaluations, such as statistics, expert reports and rankings, underlines the pervasiveness and indispensability of comparisons. A case in point are the international statistics of the UN and the World Bank that compare, and sometimes rank, all states of the world by means of a wide range of indicators, thus creating an image of the world as an interrelated whole and as an emerging world society.
On the other hand - and this is a second reason, why the analyses of comparisons may help to explain the ambivalent process of globalization - comparisons also foster the countermovements, that make the emerging of a world society difficult if not impossible. Meanwhile comparisons may insert global horizons of comparison (Heintz/Werron), they at the time question the applicability of those.
In other words, by making the world more homogenous, comparisons also help to make the world more diverse. As R. Radhakrishnan has pointed out, "The project of comparison finds itself somewhere between the stability of identity and the fluidity of difference." (2013, S. 18.) The practices of comparison depend to a high degree on politics of comparisons: Who is allowed to compare whom to whom and who is not?
There are a number of social phenomena that can be interpreted along these lines: the postcolonial critique of modernization, which confronts the Western claim of universalism with the assertion of insurmountable differences between the cultures or the rise of individualism emphasizing the uniqueness of the individual and denying the legitimacy of comparisons etc. Such examples indicate that the spread of comparisons has not been a linear success story. It is rather marked by conflicts, discontinuities, backlashes and retrograde movements. The research endeavor combines global history approaches with postcolonial, cultural and sociological theories and aims at developing a new understanding of historical change. We want to investigate how comparisons became global in scope, to what extent they contributed to the concept of the world as a whole, and what roles played comparisons in the making of West-European modernity in an entangled world.

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