Comparative Method in Sociological Research

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The Phrase “comparative method” refers to the method of comparing different societies or groups within the same society to show whether and why they are similar or different in certain respects. Both Montesquieu and Auguste Comte, often regarded as the founders of sociology, used or recommended ‘comparison’ to establish and explain both differences and similarities between societies. The comparative method was for long considered the method par excellence of sociology. According to Andre Beteille, comparative method is used distinctly by two sets of scholars. Firstly, the ‘enthusiasts’ those who make cross board analysis. These include Edward Tylor, Herbert Spencer, Emile Durkheim and Radcliff Brown . Secondly the ‘skeptics’- those who use comparative method with great degree of caution. These include Franz Boas, Gouldner, And Evans Pritchard. Auguste Comte used the comparative method by suggesting the comparison of human with non- human characteristics, to show what was distinctive of the former and the comparison of societies at the same and different stages of social development to demonstrate the laws of co-existence and laws of succession and mental phenomena. It was first used by the evolutionist sociologists, but its use doesn’t involve a necessary commitment to an evolutionary approach, Herbert Spencer was one such evolutionist who used the comparative method to show the development of society from simple to complex. He put forth the ‘organic analogy’ in which he compared society with a biological organism. L.H Morgan, another evolutionist, studied the evolution of family from the savage era, through barbarism to civilization. He studied the institutional forms by comparing their development in these three stages. Edward Bounette Tylor introduced a statistical method for the comparative study of cultural traits and doctrine of survival. The chief aim of comparison was to discover “cultural adhesions” or necessary co-relation between two or more phenomenon such as rules of kinship behaviour and kinship terminology. Emile Durkheim, in the Rules Of Sociological Method, first set out clearly the significance of the method. After claiming that sociological explanation ‘consists entirely in the establishment causal connections; he observes that only way to demonstrate that one phenomenon is the cause of another (concomitant variation) is to examine cases in which the two phenomenon are simultaneously present or absent and thus, to establish whether one depends on the other. In many of the natural sciences the establishment of causal connections is facilitated by experiment, but since experiment is impossible in sociology, we are obliged, says Durkheim, to use the method of indirect experiment i.e comparative method. Even if there is some doubt as to whether causal connections can be rigourously demonstrated in the social field, it maybe called a way of ‘systematic comparisons’ which are illuminating as they show that certain social phenomena are frequently associated with each other, or frequently occur in a regular order of succession. Such a systematic and and causal explanation has been offered in the study of concomitant variations by J.S Mills as the method of inductive inquiry and elevated by Durkheim to a paramount principal in sociological research, Mills believed that concomitant variations provides only quantitative precision referring to the occurrence or non-occurrence of a particular phenomenon with others but Durkheim argues that it includes qualitative changes in the situation as well. In his “Division of Labour” , compared the legal systems of different societies at the same and different levels of development. In his work Suicide, he compared suicide rates both at different societies and of different groups within a society to show that these rates varied inversely with the degree of social cohesion and the degree of stability. E.g. Protestants have high suicide rates than Catholics, military personal...
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