Comparison is an indispensable intellectual operation that plays a crucial role in the formation of knowledge. Yet comparison often leads us to forego attention to nuance, detail, and context, perhaps leaving us bereft of an ethical obligation to take things correspondingly as they are. Examining the practice of comparison across the study of history, language, religion, and culture, distinguished scholar of religion Bruce Lincoln argues in Apples and Oranges for a comparatism of a more modest sort.
Lincoln presents critiques of recent attempts at grand comparison, and enlists numerous theoretical examples of how a more modest, cautious, and discriminating form of comparison might work and what it can accomplish. He does this through studies of shamans, werewolves, human sacrifices, apocalyptic prophecies, sacred kings, and surveys of materials as diverse and wide-ranging as Beowulf, Herodotus’s account of the Scythians, the Native American Ghost Dance, and the Spanish Civil War.
Ultimately, Lincoln argues that concentrating one's focus on a relatively small number of items that the researcher can compare closely, offering equal attention to relations of similarity and difference, not only grants dignity to all parties considered, it yields more reliable and more interesting—if less grandiose—results. Giving equal attention to the social, historical, and political contexts and subtexts of religious and literary texts also allows scholars not just to assess their content, but also to understand the forces, problems, and circumstances that motivated and shaped them.
In this major theoretical and methodological statement on the history of religions, Jonathan Z. Smith shows how convert apologetic agendas can dictate the course of comparative religious studies. As his example, Smith reviews four centuries of scholarship comparing early Christianities with religions of late Antiquity (especially the so-called mystery cults) and shows how this scholarship has been based upon an underlying Protestant-Catholic polemic. The result is a devastating critique of traditional New Testament scholarship, a redescription of early Christianities as religious traditions amenable to comparison, and a milestone in Smith's controversial approach to comparative religious studies.
"An important book, and certainly one of the most significant in the career of Jonathan Z. Smith, whom one may venture to call the greatest pathologist in the history of religions. As in many precedent cases, Smith follows a standard procedure: he carefully selects his victim, and then dissects with artistic finesse and unequaled acumen. The operation is always necessary, and a deconstructor of Smith's caliber is hard to find."—Ioan P. Coulianu, Journal of Religion
A rich ethnography of ecopolitics in Hong Kong in the late 1990s, as the region shifted to Chinese sovereignty, Ecologies of Comparison describes how ecological concepts of uniqueness and scale resonated among environmentalists, including those seeking to preserve a species of white dolphin, to protect an aging fishing village from redevelopment, and to legitimize air quality as an object of political and medical concern. During his research, Tim Choy became increasingly interested in the power of the notion of specificity. While documenting the expert and lay production of Hong Kong’s biological, cultural, and political specificities, he began comparing the logics and narrative forms that made different types of specificity—such as species, culture, locality, and state autonomy—possible and meaningful. He came to understand these logics and forms as “ecologies of comparison,” conceptual practices through which an event or form of life comes to matter in environmentalist and other political terms. Choy’s ethnography is about environmentalism, Hong Kong, and the ways that we think about environmentalism in Hong Kong and other places. It is also about how politics, freedom, culture, expertise, and other concepts figure in comparison-based knowledge practices.
“An impressive review of reputed fascist movements, at once setting them apart from other authoritarian nationalist organizations and bringing them together within a qualified generic category. Running throughout the volume, and valuable to readers at every level, is a careful critique of the major debates that divide scholars on this most unintelligible ‘ism’ of them all. Payne precisely defines issues, cites the best literature in the major European languages, and offers with moderation and intelligence his own conclusions on the question.”—Gilbert Allardyce, American Historical Review
In his 1978 Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures, unpublished until now, Gilbert Lewis takes on essential problems for medical anthropology. Has there been progress in medicine? Consider what it was like to be ill in a Gnau village in the West Sepik Province of Papua New Guinea in 1968 and compare it with the experience of illness fifteen years later, after they gained independence. The changes involved some loss of self-reliance. Or consider Bregbo, a community in the Ivory Coast whose prophet offers healing through confession and, in some cases, long-term care in a therapeutic setting. What does this offer that psychiatric approaches to healing do not? Drawing on these and other cases, Lewis conveys the importance of the ethnographic comparison of medical beliefs in dynamic spaces of knowledge to do with illness, health, and healing, especially as these change over time and intersect with others. Capturing debates during a key moment in the development of medical anthropology, these lectures also inspire us to look with new eyes at contemporary problems in the field.
Before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the subsequent archival revolution, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s famous “literary investigation” The Gulag Archipelago was the most authoritative overview of the Stalinist system of camps. But modern research is developing a much more thorough and nuanced understanding of the Gulag. There is a greater awareness of the wide variety of camps, many not isolated in far-off Siberia; prisoners often intermingled with local populations. The forced labor system was not completely distinct from the “free” labor of ordinary Soviet citizens, as convicts and non-prisoners often worked side-by-side. Nor was the Gulag unique when viewed in a global historical context.
Still, the scale and scope of the Soviet Gulag was unprecedented. Intrinsic to Stalinist modernization, the Gulag was tasked with the construction of massive public works, scientific and engineering projects, and such mundane work as road repairs. Along with the collectivization of agriculture, the Soviet economy (including its military exertions in World War II) was in large part dependent on compulsory labor. The camp system took on an outsized economic significance, and the vast numbers of people taken in by zealous secret police were meant to fulfill material, not just political, goals. While the Soviet system lacked the explicitly dedicated extermination camps of its Nazi counterpart, it did systematically extract work from inmates to the verge of death then cynically “released” them to reduce officially reported mortality rates.
In an original turn, the book offers a detailed consideration of the Gulag in the context of the similar camps and systems of internment. Chapters are devoted to the juxtaposition of nineteenth-century British concentration camps in Africa and India, the Tsarist-era system of exile in Siberia, Chinese and North Korean reeducation camps, the post-Soviet penal system in the Russian Federation, and of course the infamous camp system of Nazi Germany. This not only reveals the close relatives, antecedents, and descendants of the Soviet Gulag—it shines a light on a frighteningly widespread feature of late modernity.
Overall, The Soviet Gulag offers fascinating new interpretations of the interrelationship and importance of the Gulag to the larger Soviet political and economic system, and how they were in fact parts of the same entity.
In The Value of Comparison Peter van der Veer makes a compelling case for using comparative approaches in the study of society and for the need to resist the simplified civilization narratives popular in public discourse and some social theory. He takes the quantitative social sciences and the broad social theories they rely on to task for their inability to question Western cultural presuppositions, demonstrating that anthropology's comparative approach provides a better means to understand societies. This capacity stems from anthropology's engagement with diversity, its fragmentary approach to studying social life, and its ability to translate difference between cultures. Through essays on topics as varied as iconoclasm, urban poverty, Muslim immigration, and social exclusion van der Veer highlights the ways that studying the particular and the unique allows for gaining a deeper knowledge of the whole without resorting to simple generalizations that elide and marginalize difference.
In Dante’s Inferno, the lowest circle of Hell is reserved for traitors, those who betrayed their closest companions. In a wide range of literatures and mythologies such intimate aggression is a source of ultimate terror, and in Witchcraft, Intimacy, and Trust, Peter Geschiere masterfully sketches it as a central ember at the core of human relationships, one brutally revealed in the practice of witchcraft. Examining witchcraft in its variety of forms throughout the globe, he shows how this often misunderstood practice is deeply structured by intimacy and the powers it affords. In doing so, he offers not only a comprehensive look at contemporary witchcraft but also a fresh—if troubling—new way to think about intimacy itself.
Geschiere begins in the forests of southeast Cameroon with the Maka, who fear “witchcraft of the house” above all else. Drawing a variety of local conceptions of intimacy into a global arc, he tracks notions of the home and family—and witchcraft’s transgression of them—throughout Africa, Europe, Brazil, and Oceania, showing that witchcraft provides powerful ways of addressing issues that are crucial to social relationships. Indeed, by uncovering the link between intimacy and witchcraft in so many parts of the world, he paints a provocative picture of human sociality that scrutinizes some of the most prevalent views held by contemporary social science.
One of the few books to situate witchcraft in a global context, Witchcraft, Intimacy, and Trust is at once a theoretical tour de force and an empirically rich and lucid take on a difficult-to-understand spiritual practice and the private spaces throughout the world it so greatly affects.