Sociologists have embraced what is known as the comparative method as the
most efficient way to expose taken-for-granted 'truths' or laws that people
have 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 to
follow I will attempt to give you some insight and understanding of what the
comparative 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 if
the result of the comparison shows a difference between the two. The
comparative method attempts to dereify (the process of exposing
misinterpreted norms. Norms that society consider natural and inevitable
characteristics of human existence) reified (the human created norms or
Obviously there are various ways in which a nomi (a labeled, sometime
constructed, norm or truth) can be exposed.
Which form of the comparative
method should one use however? The answer, whichever one applies to the
'truth' in question. For example, you certainly would not do a cross-gender
form of comparison if you wished to expose whether or not homosexuality has
always been feared and looked down upon by most people throughout history.
No, rather you would perform a historical comparison of two or more
different societies to see if these beliefs always existed, or, whether or
not this is a newly constructed belief.
Let's look at little more closely at the above mentioned historical
comparison 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 fear
and trepidation towards people who are labeled 'homosexual'. The question
we will attempt to answer however is whether or not it has always been like
this and is this a universal truth.
In ancient Greek societies people had a very different opinion of men that
slept with men. For example, it was considered quite an honor for a family
with a young boy under the age of 10, to be given the privilege on an older
man of high society taking their son into his house. The young boy would go
and live with this older man. The older man would have sex with the young
boy on a regular basis until the boy developed facial hair. It was not
until then that the boy was considered a man. Society thought that an older
mans, of great reputation, semen would help the boy develop into a fine
young man. Once the boy developed the facial hair, the sex between the two
would stop. The older man's job was finished. Obviously this would be
considered an atrocious and disgusting act these days. The older man in
this 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 comparison
that homophobia, as we know it, is not a natural truth, nor is it a
universal belief. Rather it is a socially constructed belief that many
people have taken for granted as an inevitable part of human existence.
It is important at this point to clarify something however. It is said
that the role of the sociologist is a descriptive one as opposed to a
prescriptive one. That is to say that the sociologist should describe the
various practices, customs and structures that exist in various societies
rather than suggest to people which one is actually the correct belief or
the 'real' truth.
Cross-gender comparisons is another commonly used comparison used to reveal
socially constructed truths. In Carol Gilligan's book 'In a different
voice' we find a fine example of a cross-gender comparison. She states that
most people believe that the majority of people, both men and women, view
morale issues in the same way. However, through empirical data collection,
Carol Gilligan concludes that this is not most often the case. Rather, she
states 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 constructed
truth 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 the
house-wife. Still today most men view the role of the married woman as one
that 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 this
socially constructed truth.
Cross-class comparisons is also a comparison commonly used when attempting
to expose constructed truths between two classes. i.e. lower-class,
upper-class, middle-class. For an example I refer to my lecture notes. Our
professor gave us a fine example of a cross-class comparison involving his
own life. He was from a middle-class family and attended a public school
where he got involved with various kids from the middle and lower class. He
grew up in this type of environment and accepted it as the his life as the
way 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 even
knew existed. As you can see, our professor socially constructed the view
that society was like the one that he lived in when he went to his public
school, hung around with middle and lower-class friends, and did what middle
and lower-class kids did. When he was afforded the chance to compare that
type of lifestyle to one of the upper-class he dereified his constructed
view 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 one
is fairly straight forward. The name basically says it all. In fact, it's
much like the historical comparison method but on a much smaller scale. I
believe that in order for it to be termed cross-generational, the
generations that are being analyzed have to be living at the same time.
Otherwise it becomes a historical comparison. Karen Anderson gives an
example of a cross-generational comparison in her book Sociology : A
Critical Introduction (1996, pg. 12).
"Canadians pride themselves on their tolerance and lack of prejudice. But
we do not need to look very far into our history to find examples of
taken-for-granted understandings that have led to discriminatory and
prejudicial treatment. Some segments of the population have been
classified as undesirable and thus as unwanted or undeserving outsiders..."
Anderson is pointing out that the constructed view in Canada is that we
pride 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 the
example of Canada's history of immigration. She discusses the fact that a
lot of Chinese people were allowed to immigrate to Canada, much to the
dismay of current residents and already established European immigrants,
during the time when the transcontinental railroad was being built. Sir
John A. Macdonald was the Prime Minister at this time and defended his
reputation by telling the people of Canada, who were very disturbed by his
actions, that the Chinese immigrants would live in Western Canada just
temporarily. To reassure the people further Macdonald said "...no fear of a
permanent degradation of the country by a mongrel race". This would be
considered horrific these days. Most Canadians would not even realize that
their country was very closed to the idea of the immigration of certain
types of people. The social idea that Canada is, and always have been, a
very tolerant country is exposed as a false, constructed truth through this
Finally we come to the last major comparative form. That of the
cross-cultural. Cross-cultural comparison consists of comparing two
societies or cultures in an attempt to reveal and expose some socially
constructed 'truths' in order to prove that they are not universal but
rather they are relative to each society.
There are literally thousands of differences between almost every culture
that people would be surely shocked to learn of. For the next example I
will show how the cross-cultural comparative method dereifies some of the
constructed so-called universal-truths that people in our society may have.
India differs in it's customs considerably from that of Canada or Northern
America. For example, in Western Civilization families sit together when
they attend church, in India this is not acceptable at all. Men and women
must sit on opposite sides of the church. Men and women in India for the
most part will not eat together, whereas in Western civilization it is a
common practice and is actually looked upon as a good time for a little
family bonding. In India it is considered rude to eat with both hands at
the table. The right had is solely used for eating and the left for
drinking. Obviously we have a completely different practice in Western
society. Another shock that a Westerner might face if he/she were to travel
to India would be the fact that it is still considered a major social
impropriety for a man to even touch a woman in public. In North America
public 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 exposed
when compared to another culture.
One of the major benefits for exposing these truths through the comparative
method is the fact that dereifying accepted truths leads to a decrease in
ethnocentrism. Ethnocentrism is the act of interpreting all societies
through one's own cultural lenses and believing that there idea of truths
are the only correct ones. This could lead to the imposing of one's own
beliefs onto other societies. In other words, comparing, exposing, and
dereifying helps educate and eliminate ignorance when it comes to social
'truths'. However, there is a danger to exposing social constructs. It
could lead to one taking on the perceptive of a radical relativist (all
truths are correct) or a nihilistic view (the belief that all truths are
relative and therefore there are no truths). Obviously this is a very
negative, and possibly a destructive, way of thinking.
As you can see, the comparative method is an essential part of a
sociologists practice. Without it there would be a lot of confusion and
misunderstanding between people and societies. Hopefully I have shown by
example the various forms of the comparative method and how each of them
applies to society and how they attempt to expose falsities.