In two posts over the past week (“Not the War of 1812” and “2006 and 1930”) I addressed two recent examples from news and commentary magazines (Time and The Nation) of comparisons between the present moment and events and earlier historical contexts.
Both articles I commented on share a common flaw, a sort of two-step error in identification. First, both authors do identify interesting parallels between certain aspects of the present and particular historical moments, but go beyond this to imply an identity between the contexts, at least in all essential or important regards. Second, they assume that what happened then will happen now and in the near future, or at the least that what happened then is a reliable guide to what’s likely to happen now.
This is an understandable approach. It would perhaps be useful and satisfying to be able to identify historical or cross-cultural situations which highly parallel our current context sufficiently to offer a sort of skeleton key to discern the short term course of events beforehand.
The problem with this is actually fairly simple. Social and historical contexts are unique (i.e. involving a specific set of individuals doing a specific set of things in specific spaces) and simply too complex to discern the sorts of total parallels necessary to accurately prognosticate the future through historical analysis or ethnological comparison.
This doesn’t mean that historical or cross-cultural comparison is not useful or insightful. At best, though, such comparison yields insights into general tendencies and associations – it may yield a useful awareness of likely possibilities if comparison is carefully defined and delimited. Where the comparative approach works best is in lining up commonalities and differences across two or more contexts in an attempt to discern recurring associations between similar aspects of phenomena. In pursuit of this, comparison works best not through any attempt to identify contexts which parallel one another in a total sense, but actually through comparing situations that are both similar and different in important regards (where difference allows for more clear discernment of enduring associations, even in contexts which otherwise differ).
As a side note, useful historical or sociocultural comparison pursues nomothetic generalizations, the identification of associated patterns which tend to co-occur across a variety of settings. As such, it is not opposed to idiographic scholarly approaches which focus on careful description and analysis of particular settings. Instead, careful comparison depends on thorough-going idiographic work having been done on the contexts under comparison. Further, neither idiographic nor comparative nomothetic scholarship are exclusive to any style of scholarly work – either can be conducted using any number of data collection and analysis techniques.
An example of a useful ethnological comparison can start to be discerned in Marshall Sahlins’ classic essay “Poor Man, Rich Man, Big Man, Chief.” In this article, Sahlins presents an important distinction in political organization between the island cultures of Melanesia and of Polynesia (with regard to Melanesia, it seems apparent to me that he’s mainly talking about island Melanesia and coastal New Guinea, but not particularly the interior areas of New Guinea – at least when it comes to identifying key cultural features). While also laying out important social parallels between the two cultural areas, he notes the predominance of “Big Man” political organization (characterized by small polities, and personal influence but not authority of political leaders – the “Big Men”) in Melanesia and of chiefdoms in Polynesia (characterized by larger polities, with chiefs coming into political offices with both power and authority). He doesn’t really make an argument about causation in the article, but he does also note one other suggestive distinction between the two areas, specifically that Melanesian culture tends to be associated with smaller resource bases (smaller islands or interior valleys largely isolated from others by the rugged terrain in the interior of New Guinea). This in turn would mean smaller surpluses that could be extracted and concentrated to form a permanent political elite that can effectively maintain its power and authority through things like full time armed cadres of supporters.
The sort of comparison started by Sahlins in that article can, I think, be usefully extended to make the association between size of resource base and scale of political development clearer if the comparison is fleshed out via more recognition between important cultural differences within Melanesia that still remain associated with the factors identified by Sahlins. In many ways, coastal and island Melanesia is more like Polynesia than like the interior of New Guinea. Linguistically, Austronesian languages are prevalent throughout the coastal and island areas of both Melanesia and Polynesia, in contrast to the prevalence of non-Austronesian languages in interior Melanesia. In terms of subsistence patterns, coastal and island Melanesia and Polynesia emphasize marine resources to provide plentiful protein, alongside cultivation of a variety of tuber and orchard crops and domesticated pigs. Interior Melanesia emphasizes much the same crops and the pigs, but instead of heavy utilization of marine resources, farming is supplemented with gathering and the hunting of terrestrial game animals – arguably providing a somewhat more meager protein base. Interior Melanesian societies are often much more male dominated, with a fratriarchal form of male domination, than is the case with either coastal / island Melanesia or Polynesia. (Whether fratriarchal male domination is related to lower protein resources in tropical forest zones in New Guinea or the Amazon basin was part of what the “Protein Debates” in anthropological scholarship of the 1970s was all about.) Despite major cultural differences between interior and coastal Melanesia, the association between size of resource base and “Big Man” or similar forms of political organizations holds in both portions of Melanesia, and is in fact strengthened by awareness of the important differences.
Cross-cultural or historical comparison is a useful tool in discerning patterns that endure across multiple settings. What we should not realistically expect to encounter are contexts that parallel one another in all essential respects (and even if we did, it would say little or nothing of use about general patterns that operate beyond those two specific settings).