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The comparative historical method, first introduced by the French scholar Marc Bloch, stresses the idea of a common universal history among even the most unrelated of societies. For example, although a revolution arises out of a distinctive historical situation, revolutions in general share certain traits that account for their dramatic political changes. This method requires historians to take a more global approach to their work.
Many modern historians rooted in their fields of time and place defend the uniqueness of the events, institutions, and processes they study. Sometimes they neglect to recognize, however, the ways in which their explanations and interpretations depend on principles of understanding that connect what they see in their particular cases to other phenomena. The uniqueness asserted by historians is often of a phenomenon that is itself broken down into parts that we understand because they resemble familiar ideas and practices from other times and places. The explanations and interpretations in all case studies depend in various ways on certain general principles that are themselves distilled from comparisons among other historical experiences. Comparative history, a field that focuses mostly on relatively recent history (i.e., beginning about 1500 CE), involves more explicit comparison, one that consciously identifies both similarities and differences.
The European Context
One of the first historians in the twentieth century to stress the importance of the comparative historical method was Marc Bloch, the great French scholar of medieval and early modern Europe. In an essay entitled “A contribution towards a comparative history of European societies,” published in 1928, Bloch identified two main contexts in which comparisons are an important tool for historians. First, he noted that in widely separate places in early history there seemed to be similar practices among what he called “primitive peoples.” Studies of early cultures conducted in the 1920s interpreted such similarities as signs of a common universal history. The second context for using a comparative method, and the one to which he devoted most of his attention, involves areas close to one another where mutual influences or common origins for ideas and institutions are obscured by linguistic differences and national historiographical traditions. Bloch argued that the study of feudalism and manorial organization, for example, must span Europe generally rather than just one European nation, since the similarities and differences among practices suggest a range of related practices common to many places. According to this view, focusing only on French or German cases might lead the researcher to look for local explanations for practices that in fact were the result of more widely applicable factors in European society.
In another essay, “A Problem in Comparative History: The Administrative Classes in France and Germany,” also published in 1928, Bloch analyzes feudal political relationships and uncovers both similarities and differences, in the process identifying what he considers features of German law that are significantly different from other legal systems in central and eastern Europe.
The Global Context
More recent scholarship on both political and economic history has employed comparative methods to analyze historical change within Europe and on a more global scale. Some scholars have looked at particular categories of complex events, like revolutions. Theda Skocpol’s widely read States and Social Revolutions (1979) presents a series of similarities and differences among the French, Russian, and Chinese revolutions to argue that revolutions, although each arises out of a distinctive historical situation, share certain traits that account for their dramatic political changes. Another text, Jack Goldstone’s Revolution and Rebellion in the Early Modern World (1991) identifies a series of common problems in England, France, China, and the Ottoman Empire that create similar crises from which emerge distinct patterns of rule. Large revolutions are few in number, and plausible comparisons are therefore limited. Larger numbers of comparisons become possible when political changes more generally are studied.
Charles Tilly (1975, 1992) explains the formation and transformation of European states since roughly 1000CE according to the relative abilities of rulers to amass resources and make war. Beginning amid a tremendous diversity of political units, in Tilly’s account, some states stress mobilizing commercial revenues while others are better able to build armies by taxing the land. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the most successful states are those that can both gain wealth and monopolize the use of force. Tilly’s work suggests variations among European states in a dynamic process of political transformations.
Another influential approach to the formation of modern states highlights the changing bases of political authority in societies with hereditary rulers and in societies in which rulers appeal to their subjects for legitimacy. Reinhard Bendix (1978) has studied changing authority relations between states and subjects as the key axis along which to observe the turn toward modern states in which people achieve popular sovereignty. Like Tilly, Bendix portrays variations among countries that all undergo parallel processes of political change. Both scholars also recognize connections among their cases: Tilly’s polities are all part of a larger European state system, and Bendix tracks the spread of ideas and institutions basic to modern states from their points of origin to other places. Bendix’s approach takes him beyond his European cases of England, France, Germany, and Russia: he analyzes Japan as an example of a country to which political concepts first forged in Western Europe subsequently spread.
In contrast to studies that remain within Europe or explore the export of practices from the West to other regions, Victor Lieberman (1997, 2004) has suggested that similar processes of change were taking place between the mid-fifteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries across the East–West divide; he compares Burma (Myanmar), Siam (Thailand), and Vietnam with France, Russia, and Japan, arguing for similar processes of political, economic, and cultural changes in each case. Lieberman’s identification of parallel dynamics of political and social change within and beyond Europe has been an important contribution to reframing the discussion about European historical change.
Complementing Lieberman’s insights is another approach to the particularities of European state formation that contrasts the European examples with the dynamics of political evolution in another major political system, the Chinese agrarian empire. R. Bin Wong has shown that the challenges faced by state-makers in Europe were in many ways distinct from those confronting Chinese rulers. According to Wong (1997, 2002), the responses to these challenges were influenced in Europe by the claims elites could make upon their rulers, whereas in China they were guided by the common commitments rulers and elites made to sustain social order.
Overseas colonial empires represented yet another kind of state that defined a set of relations between a metropole and its periphery. Nineteenth-century colonialism suggests a different way in which European states reached other parts of the world: not as the benign purveyors of political principles and models of government, but as overlords who divided up large parts of Africa and Asia as an extension of state competition in Europe. According to Lauren Benton (2002), these competing colonialisms produced a range of similar developments, including the introduction of various forms of pluralism as a means to accommodate cultural differences—sometimes in ways that led to an acceptance of colonial rule in many nineteenth-century colonies.
Learning from European colonization programs, the Japanese state began to build its own colonial empire in the late nineteenth century. The Japanese results, however, were different from the colonial empires of Western powers, which had their colonies spread over vast distances. The Japanese colonial empire, beginning with Taiwan and Korea and later Manchuria, was viewed by many in the Japanese government as a tightly knit regional political and economic order designed to support Japan and secure it from threats posed by Western powers. From an east Asian perspective, the Japanese Empire represented the creation of a new kind of political order replacing the much looser symbolic order of tributary relations centered on the agrarian empire. In place of ritual presentations of tribute and commercial exchanges under the tributary order, colonial empire imposed legally defined and bureaucratically organized control over subject populations who were subjected economically to extractive and unequal relationships to the colonizer. Both Chinese agrarian empire and Japanese colonial empire differed from European empires in two ways—first, Europeans competed with each other and divided territories among themselves in different world regions; and second, the distances from imperial center to periphery were far longer for Europeans than in East Asian cases. Neither the Chinese world order nor the Japanese colonial empire that succeeded it were simply subordinated to a Europe-centered system of international relations; rather, a unique and evolving system of regional political relations persisted among East Asian states even as they became more connected to the powerful political and economic system centered on both sides of the Atlantic. Such hemispheric distinctions suggest that interpretations of modern political change as exclusively or even primarily the expansion of a Western system of international relations are incomplete and misleading.
Assessing the Europe-Centered Approach
These interpretive difficulties notwithstanding, much influential work in world history has been done by tracing the expansion of European power across the globe—in fact, historians have tended to view nineteenth- and twentieth-century international relations as the most recent chapter in a story of Western political and economic domination. Most all interpretations of large-scale changes largely build upon directly or indirectly the work of Karl Marx and Max Weber. The systemic features of this European expansion form the basis of Immanuel Wallerstein’s modern “world-system” (1974, 1980, 1989). Wallerstein’s seminal work, inspired by Marxist insights, makes brief comparisons between the international system centered on the European world from the sixteenth to the mid-nineteenth centuries and systems in place elsewhere in the world, before asserting that by the end of the nineteenth century, any fundamental East-West distinctions were subordinated to what had become the modern, Western-dominated world-system. Therefore, most analyses inspired by Wallerstein’s work focus on the Europe-centered system and its expansion, without much attention to the dynamics of change within other systems.
Part of the intellectual foundation of Wallerstein’s world-system is the work of French historian Fernand Braudel, one of whose major studies, the three-volume Civilization and Capitalism: 15th–18th Century (1992), identifies the distinctiveness of European capitalism through comparisons with merchants and markets in different parts of Asia. Such comparisons follow a long tradition of efforts by seminal thinkers to explain the distinctiveness of Europe and its patterns of political and economic transformation by identifying contrasts with non-European parts of the world. In the nineteenth century most observers, including revolutionary figures like Karl Marx, believed that outside Europe lay stagnant societies with unchanging economies. Most educated Westerners exposed to cultures in Africa and Asia regarded these places as inferior to the West; while some were recognized as descendants of great and powerful ancient civilizations, on the whole they were seen as shallow and broken remnants of their past greatness.
Max Weber, the early-twentieth-century master of historical comparisons, looked to religion and ethics as the arena in which different attitudes toward money and markets took shape. He noted that in the Christian West, these attitudes formed in a way that led to the rise of capitalism, while in other religious traditions they did not (1958). Weber’s famous observations about a “Protestant work ethic” have been qualified, however, by more recent scholarship documenting what appear to be functionally similar beliefs in other religious traditions (e.g., Bellah 1957; Rodinson 1974). Comparisons of a broader and more general kind between Europe and other parts of the world have continued to highlight differences, whether formulated within a clear Weberian framework (Hall 1985) or presented in a more ad-hoc and storytelling manner (Landes 1998).
Marxist interpretations have also argued for distinctive European political and economic practices, as shown in two influential works of the 1970s. Perry Anderson’s two-volume study of European state formation, Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State (1974), went back to classical antiquity to give a long-term view of how absolutist states were formed centuries later; his appendices on China, Japan, and the Ottoman Empire reviewed much of the available research to suggest how a Marxist analysis of these cases could be fashioned to complement what he had done for Europe. Robert Brenner also wrote an influential study comparing English agrarian social relations with those on the European continent (1976); he argued that it was English social relations that made possible increased agricultural productivity and surpluses that financed the formation of commercial capitalism. After his conclusions were challenged by English, French, and Dutch data, Brenner shifted his arguments from class relations to the late medieval state (1982) and later to an explanation specifically of Dutch materials (2001). More recently, in work with Christopher Isett (2002), Brenner has returned to his initial formulation about agrarian class relations and gone well beyond Europe to look at an economically active part of eighteenth-century China, attempting to argue that differences in social relations cause differences in agricultural productivity.
The Brenner-Isett effort is part of a debate with Kenneth Pomeranz over explaining what the latter has called the “great divergence” between Europe and the rest of the world (Pomerantz 2001). Pomeranz shows similarities in the performance of the advanced agrarian economies in Asia, especially China, and in Europe; in order to explain the subsequent divergence in economic fortunes, he stresses Europeans’ economic gains, especially in terms of resources, from the particular ways in which they developed production in the Americas. On the other hand, where Brenner and Isett affirm different agrarian social relations as basic to differences in trajectories of economic change, David Landes stresses what seem largely cultural factors. Together Brenner, Isett and Landes affirm the continued contemporary appeal that the ideas of Marx and Weber have for historians who make broad comparisons among large parts of the world.
A distinct addition to these comparisons is highlighted by Andre Gunder Frank, who aggressively argues (1998) for connections among the world’s economic regions and asserts that China was at the center of the world’s economy between 1500 and 1800, taking in large amounts of silver to fuel its expanding commercial economy. In contrast, R. Bin Wong suggests that the economic links made possible by the silver trade did not encourage the kinds of division of labor and movements of capital and labor that would come to characterize international trade after the mid-nineteenth century; he argues that a comparison of the early modern world economy with what follows offers important differences as well as parallels (Wong 2002).
Beyond the East–West Divide
Many uses of the comparative method in historical studies occur across the East–West divide of Eurasia. But there have also been comparisons that set this vast land mass off from still other continents. The anthropologist Jack Goody has argued that societies across Eurasia, from Japan to England and most points in between, shared structurally similar kinds of kinship systems, demographic regimes, and social structures. For him the major divide globally is between Eurasia and sub-Saharan Africa, where kinship and social structures differed from those of Eurasia largely due to small populations relative to land and the implications of this situation for techniques of economic production and social control (1971, 1976). Within this broad framing he has repeatedly criticized ideas about European uniqueness (1990, 1998).
Jared Diamond has drawn a related contrast between Eurasia and other continents in Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), suggesting that Eurasia had a geography well-suited to farming and animal domestication; this in turn supported more densely populated areas where more complex governments, sophisticated systems of communication, and increased resistance to diseases all developed. Diamond has very little to say, however, about the causes of variations within Eurasia, the terrain across which historians making comparisons have usually moved. The great sweep of Diamond’s history across space and through time depends on some basic comparisons between environmental and biological traits of Eurasia and other continents. Many books on environment and biology in world history, like Alfred Crosby’s Ecological Imperialism, stress connections made by European expansion rather than comparisons among different cases. Yet, common themes in environmental history can be seen through comparisons, as John Richards demonstrates in The Unending Frontier (2003). This history of the environment of the early modern world includes comparisons of agricultural settlement patterns on Taiwan, mainland China, and Russia; land use patterns in the Americas; and the hunting and fishing industries.
Comparative methods have been used implicitly or explicitly in historical studies for a long time. Explanations and interpretations of a particular phenomenon depend on comparing the case at hand with more familiar examples of the same or at least similar phenomena. Among historical works that are explicitly comparative, certain European experiences have often been taken as a benchmark against which to measure performance elsewhere. Whether Marxist or Weberian, this approach has motivated the search for similarities and differences between European patterns of political, economic, and social change and those in Africa, the Americas, and Asia. Many such efforts stress the differences that make Europe the historical paradigm, while others argue, in a related fashion, that historical change elsewhere in the world influenced by European principles and practices tends to result in comparable outcomes. Critics of what is usually a cheerful view of convergence often contend that Western expansion has been destructive, putting many populations into subordinate economic and political conditions. Yet, many recent historical comparisons have also moved beyond simple dichotomies, highlighting in more nuanced ways both similarities and differences and the way they interact to produce unique historical outcomes.
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