Sociologists have embraced what is known as the comparative method as themost efficient way to expose taken-for-granted ‘truths’ or laws that peoplehave adopted. But what is this comparative method and how does it work?Are there any advantages/disadvantages to exposing these false ‘truths’. What forms or variations of the comparative method exist? In the pages tofollow I will attempt to give you some insight and understanding of what thecomparative method is, and how it works. The comparative method, simply put, is the process of comparing two things(in our case societies, or the people that make up society) and seeing ifthe result of the comparison shows a difference between the two.
Thecomparative method attempts to dereify (the process of exposingmisinterpreted norms. Norms that society consider natural and inevitablecharacteristics of human existence) reified (the human created norms or‘truths’) beliefs. Obviously there are various ways in which a nomi (a labeled, sometimeconstructed, norm or truth) can be exposed. Which form of the comparativemethod should one use however? The answer, whichever one applies to the‘truth’ in question. For example, you certainly would not do a cross-genderform of comparison if you wished to expose whether or not homosexuality hasalways been feared and looked down upon by most people throughout history.
No, rather you would perform a historical comparison of two or moredifferent societies to see if these beliefs always existed, or, whether ornot this is a newly constructed belief. Let’s look at little more closely at the above mentioned historicalcomparison and see how the comparative method works with a specific example. There is no question that in today’s western society there is a lot of fearand trepidation towards people who are labeled ‘homosexual’. The questionwe will attempt to answer however is whether or not it has always been likethis and is this a universal truth. In ancient Greek societies people had a very different opinion of men thatslept with men.
For example, it was considered quite an honor for a familywith a young boy under the age of 10, to be given the privilege on an olderman of high society taking their son into his house. The young boy would goand live with this older man. The older man would have sex with the youngboy on a regular basis until the boy developed facial hair. It was notuntil then that the boy was considered a man. Society thought that an oldermans, of great reputation, semen would help the boy develop into a fineyoung man.
Once the boy developed the facial hair, the sex between the twowould stop. The older man’s job was finished. Obviously this would beconsidered an atrocious and disgusting act these days. The older man inthis case would certainly go to jail for the ‘crimes’ that he had committed. However, in Ancient Greece this was not only considered perfectly normal,but as I already stated, it was an honor and a gift that not every boy was‘lucky’ enough to be given. Therefore, we can conclude from this comparisonthat homophobia, as we know it, is not a natural truth, nor is it auniversal belief.
Rather it is a socially constructed belief that manypeople have taken for granted as an inevitable part of human existence. It is important at this point to clarify something however. It is saidthat the role of the sociologist is a descriptive one as opposed to aprescriptive one. That is to say that the sociologist should describe thevarious practices, customs and structures that exist in various societiesrather than suggest to people which one is actually the correct belief orthe ‘real’ truth. Cross-gender comparisons is another commonly used comparison used to revealsocially constructed truths.
In Carol Gilligan’s book ‘In a differentvoice’ we find a fine example of a cross-gender comparison. She states thatmost people believe that the majority of people, both men and women, viewmorale issues in the same way. However, through empirical data collection,Carol Gilligan concludes that this is not most often the case. Rather, shestates that men tend to approach moral issues quite differently than women.
Where as men view morale issues with a “don’t interfere with my rights”view, women focus more on the “responsibility” end of the morale involved. Thus we can conclude, thanks to the comparative method, that the constructedtruth that all people view morale issues the same is not a correct one. Another quick example of a cross-gender comparison would be that of thehouse-wife. Still today most men view the role of the married woman as onethat involves being a house-wife, in the traditional sense of the term. However, women today certainly would not view themselves in the same manner. The data collected from a comparison such as this could help to dereify thissocially constructed truth.
Cross-class comparisons is also a comparison commonly used when attemptingto expose constructed truths between two classes. i. e. lower-class,upper-class, middle-class.
For an example I refer to my lecture notes. Ourprofessor gave us a fine example of a cross-class comparison involving hisown life. He was from a middle-class family and attended a public schoolwhere he got involved with various kids from the middle and lower class. Hegrew up in this type of environment and accepted it as the his life as theway society was. To him, there was not another lifestyle.
This was life. Several events occurred and because of these events our professor was moved,by his parents, to a private school. This private school and the ‘new’society that accompanied it resulted in a form of culture shock for him. All of a sudden he was placed in a new world, a world that he never evenknew existed. As you can see, our professor socially constructed the viewthat society was like the one that he lived in when he went to his publicschool, hung around with middle and lower-class friends, and did what middleand lower-class kids did.
When he was afforded the chance to compare thattype of lifestyle to one of the upper-class he dereified his constructedview and his eyes opened to a new reality and a new view of the way society was. Another major comparative form is that of the cross-generational. This oneis fairly straight forward. The name basically says it all. In fact, it’smuch like the historical comparison method but on a much smaller scale. Ibelieve that in order for it to be termed cross-generational, thegenerations that are being analyzed have to be living at the same time.
Otherwise it becomes a historical comparison. Karen Anderson gives anexample of a cross-generational comparison in her book Sociology : ACritical Introduction (1996, pg. 12). “Canadians pride themselves on their tolerance and lack of prejudice. Butwe do not need to look very far into our history to find examples oftaken-for-granted understandings that have led to discriminatory andprejudicial treatment. Some segments of the population have beenclassified as undesirable and thus as unwanted or undeserving outsiders…”Anderson is pointing out that the constructed view in Canada is that wepride ourselves on the fact that we have very little prejudice in Canada.
She goes on to point out that this is not at all the case. She gives theexample of Canada’s history of immigration. She discusses the fact that alot of Chinese people were allowed to immigrate to Canada, much to thedismay of current residents and already established European immigrants,during the time when the transcontinental railroad was being built. SirJohn A.
Macdonald was the Prime Minister at this time and defended hisreputation by telling the people of Canada, who were very disturbed by hisactions, that the Chinese immigrants would live in Western Canada justtemporarily. To reassure the people further Macdonald said “…no fear of apermanent degradation of the country by a mongrel race”. This would beconsidered horrific these days. Most Canadians would not even realize thattheir country was very closed to the idea of the immigration of certaintypes of people.
The social idea that Canada is, and always have been, avery tolerant country is exposed as a false, constructed truth through thiscross-generational comparison. Finally we come to the last major comparative form. That of thecross-cultural. Cross-cultural comparison consists of comparing twosocieties or cultures in an attempt to reveal and expose some sociallyconstructed ‘truths’ in order to prove that they are not universal butrather they are relative to each society. There are literally thousands of differences between almost every culturethat people would be surely shocked to learn of.
For the next example Iwill show how the cross-cultural comparative method dereifies some of theconstructed so-called universal-truths that people in our society may have. India differs in it’s customs considerably from that of Canada or NorthernAmerica. For example, in Western Civilization families sit together whenthey attend church, in India this is not acceptable at all. Men and womenmust sit on opposite sides of the church. Men and women in India for themost part will not eat together, whereas in Western civilization it is acommon practice and is actually looked upon as a good time for a littlefamily bonding. In India it is considered rude to eat with both hands atthe table.
The right had is solely used for eating and the left fordrinking. Obviously we have a completely different practice in Westernsociety. Another shock that a Westerner might face if he/she were to travelto India would be the fact that it is still considered a major socialimpropriety for a man to even touch a woman in public. In North Americapublic displays of affection can been seen everywhere.
. (Stott, John. Down To Earth. 1980. Pg.
12-15)These are all prime examples of Western universal truths that are exposedwhen compared to another culture. One of the major benefits for exposing these truths through the comparativemethod is the fact that dereifying accepted truths leads to a decrease inethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the act of interpreting all societiesthrough one’s own cultural lenses and believing that there idea of truthsare the only correct ones. This could lead to the imposing of one’s ownbeliefs onto other societies.
In other words, comparing, exposing, anddereifying helps educate and eliminate ignorance when it comes to social‘truths’. However, there is a danger to exposing social constructs. Itcould lead to one taking on the perceptive of a radical relativist (alltruths are correct) or a nihilistic view (the belief that all truths arerelative and therefore there are no truths). Obviously this is a verynegative, and possibly a destructive, way of thinking. As you can see, the comparative method is an essential part of asociologists practice. Without it there would be a lot of confusion andmisunderstanding between people and societies.
Hopefully I have shown byexample the various forms of the comparative method and how each of themapplies to society and how they attempt to expose falsities. Toronto, Ontario. Canada3rd Year UniversityB+