The National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku) is a research center for ethnology and cultural anthropology.

Toward a Reconstruction of Comparison as an Anthropological Method

Joint Research Coordinator DEGUCHI Akira

Reserch Theme List


Comparison could be an essential method for anthropology. Looking back at history we can see how the appearance of new paradigms, such as evolution, functionalism and structuralism, have each led to the construction of new comparative methods. However, especially in recent years in the wake of the fundamental criticism based on postmodern anthropology, we have seen a reduction of comparative research on different regions and cultures in which actual, firm units are identified for comparative purposes.
This reduction is true not only for research into different cultures. Even as far as anthropological research into the researcher’s own culture is concerned, to attempt to understand one’s own relativism, the standpoint of comparing oneself to others is incorporated. Consequently, anthropological attempts in recent years to avoid comparisons with themselves can be viewed as resulting close to self-denial. We have tended to ignore theoretically rich areas of anthropology about the decidedly anthropological themes of cultural universality and particulars, cultural relativism and cultural translation that have a close relation to the comparative research. Anthropology is in danger of degenerating into an unrefined form of area studies. To escape this dilemma, our research will attempt to reevaluate the role comparison should play as an anthropological method and aim for a new approach to comparison.
That we should now be discussing anew comparison as an anthropological method has significance in this Age of Globalization. Globalization is often viewed as nothing more than global-scale cultural homogenization. In that sense the impression is often given that comparative research does not have much significance in this globalization. Here we see the tendency when considering globalization to overlook the wealth of diversity at the local level. Here a comparative perspective is naturally included. However, we have still not sufficiently investigated what forms of comparison are appropriate in understanding globalization. This joint research represents one attempt to find approaches to anthropological comparisons appropriate to the Age of Globalization.

Research Results

To consider comparison as an anthropological method, we first reconsidered the role that comparative research has had in the history of anthropology. We also looked at what comparative research has meant for the histories of other disciplines, including linguistics, religious studies, psychology, philosophy and the natural sciences. We moved forward comparing the role of comparative research in anthropology with those of other fields. Based on these investigations we held repeated discussions on how attempts at comparative research could be made in contemporary anthropology and in which areas the most significant results are to be expected. Our findings were first that in reviewing the history of comparison in anthropology, we certainly could not ignore the contributions of the linguist and expert on mythology, Max Muller. Also pointed out was that we might be able to discover new applications for Rodney Needham’s monothetic classification and polythetic classification paradigm.
As far as promising areas for comparative research in anthropology, we considered the prospects for such things as nationalism at the lifestyle level, as distinct from political science, history, and dialogues among religions and magic (sorcery). Here again Mueller’s applicability was deemed relevant to the study of nationalism, especially in India. As far as the analysis of myths in terms of structuralism is concerned—something which has come to be seen as passé—in terms of consideration of the other, we were able to identify new questions.