Negotiating comparison in ethnographic fieldwork

Anthropology, a discipline dedicated to understanding the full range of human experience from as many perspectives as possible, has always been comparative. This comparative aspect was one of the things that initially captured my imagination as a student. I became interested in understanding how issues that affect humans everywhere – such as poverty, inequality and development – appear in different contexts. I believe that to better debate such issues, we need to understand people’s practices as well as context-specific structures of history, environment, society, and culture. Careful comparative analysis can add to knowledge about development and social change by informing debates and contributing to more effective policies and strategies.

Once I started research as a graduate student, however, I soon realised that the way anthropologists think about comparison is not necessarily how others understand it. People don’t always like being compared. My university’s Ethics Committee didn’t much like my comparative approach either. I am facing similar questions about how and why I want to compare now that I am beginning a new research project on Sistema-inspired music education programmes in urban Wellington, New Zealand.

Questions from participants about the comparative approach I like to take have inspired the paper I will give at this year’s American Anthropological Association Meetings in Denver. It’s part of the panel Revisiting Research Methodologies, starting at 8am (!) on Saturday 21 November. Here are the details:

Title: The politics of comparison: Negotiating comparison in ethnographic fieldwork

Abstract: Comparison has always been integral to anthropological epistemology. It can make valuable contributions to knowledge by destabilizing our perspectives and framing issues “in a way that do not accord with disciplinary common sense” (Robbins, Schieffelin & Vilaça, 2014: 563). However the ways in which ‘the comparative method’ has been conceptualized and practiced has changed considerably over the past sixty years. In this paper I discuss how comparison foregrounds relations of power, the politics of representation, epistemology and methodology. Building upon the work of Gregor & Tuzin (2001) and Fox & Gingrich (2002), who have discussed various reasons why anthropologists turned away from comparison during the mid-20th century, as well as others who have since reconsidered the potential and form of comparative research, I suggest ways of negotiating mutually acceptable goals and methods for comparison with interlocutors and university Human Ethics Committees when undertaking ethnographic fieldwork. These suggestions are based on questions about why and how I wanted to take a comparative approach that arose during my first major research project – a comparative ethnographic study of grassroots women’s organizations working for social change in India and Papua New Guinea – and again earlier this year as I started a new project on Sistema-inspired music education programs in Aotearoa New Zealand.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s