The comparative method

You are here

The comparative method

This section draws on material from 'Research Methods' by Patrick McNeill (Routledge 1990)

Experiments involve comparing what happens in one situation (the control group), with what happens in another (the experimental group). It is clear that the experiment is of limited use in sociology because of the difficulty of reproducing social situations in a laboratory, largely because of their scale, but also because they involve the passing of time.

It is these problems that have led sociologists to use the comparative method. Indeed this method has been referred to as the 'natural' experiment. The sociologist collects evidence about different societies or social contexts as they are found in the real world and then identifies similarities and differences between them. In other words, a situation is not set up, or created, but is already occurring.

Some early sociologists, such as Comte, compared different societies with the intention of showing that all were evolving along a similar path. Comte produced his 'law of the three stages' of societal development, which maintained that all societies, past, present and future, necessarily passed through the same three stages of development. This conclusion was based on extensive, if rather selective, studies of the history of a wide range of societies. Marx also drew on comparative material in support of his theory of the inevitable march of history from primitive communism to post revolutionary communism.

It was however, Weber and Durkheim who based their work most firmly on the comparative method. Weber was interested in the reasons for the emergence of capitalism in Western Europe. Why did it occur when it did? Other societies had had similar social and economic systems to that of Europe and had not developed capitalism. Weber studied China and India, in particular, but also ancient Palestine and some Islamic countries. What Weber sought was a factor that was unique to Europe that he could show was logically connected with the emergence of capitalism.

The comparative method

He found his independent variable in Calvinism. Calvinists believed that every person was predestined to go to either heaven or hell. Nothing they could do would affect this destiny. However, rather than simply doing as they pleased because it could make no difference, Calvinists believed that success in work and in trade was a sign of God's favour. They were thus encouraged to work hard. Additionally, they could not spend any profit on comforts since their religion forbade this. Instead they reinvested their wealth and business flourished even more. It is this principle of reinvestment and growth that is the basis of capitalism.

Durkheim used the method to study the change from what he called mechanical to organic solidarity. He compared the legal systems of different societies, and showed that they varied according to how many laws were based on the principle of repression, and how many were based on the principle of restitution. He took the ratio between repressive law and restitutive law as an index of the type of solidarity of a society. He thought that organic solidarity was associated with restitutive law and the division of labour. In fact, more recent commentators have suggested that Durkheim's distinction makes more sense if reversed, that is, that societies based on mechanical solidarity have more law based on restitution. It is industrialised societies based on organic solidarity that make more use of repressive law.

Durkheim's most famous use of the comparative method involved the study of suicide. In this research, Durkheim collected the statistics of suicide in the various areas of France, and of other European countries. Durkheim claimed to show how suicide rates vary systematically with the rates of other social phenomena, such as religious belief, marital status, urban or rural living, military training.

More recently, writers interested in social mobility have studied rates of social mobility in different societies. Lipset and Bendix (1959), for example, looked at nine different industrialised countries, and found that rates of mobility were similar in all. This was put down to the fact that there was an increase in the number of high status jobs in industrial societies, and increasing importance attached to 'achieved' rather than 'ascribed' status.

The comparative method lies at the root of any sociological research that goes beyond description. Any sociologist who is trying to identify the causes of social events and behaviour is going to be involved in making comparisons. It is fundamental to causal explanation that comparisons are made between instances where the thing to he explained is present and instances where it is absent.