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Comprehending The Comparative Method

Updated: May 2, 2023

I started an on-line course titled “Understanding the Field of Anthropology” by Natalie Perdue. I learned that many anthropologists can study humans through various interactions. Technically, all humans are “amateur anthropologists” because everyone observes and has multiple interactions with one another. One significant idea that the video explored was the comparative method. According to Perdue, the comparative method “attempts to explain similarities and differences among people holistically, in the context of humanity as a whole”(Perdue, This method ultimately helps anthropologists examine the ways in which environment affects people’s manners.

This idea resonated with me because it reminded me of an assignment I had for one of my history class: Spice: food, trade, and culture. We were learning about different table manners for different cultures. While learning about cultures, we had an assignment where we had to record our mannerisms during dinner. Then, we came back to class and compared it to other students’ answers. There was one significant difference in this assignment that corresponds with the comparative method. During the dinner that I recorded, my family was eating Janchi-guksoo, a Korean noodle dish. In Asian cultures people slurp their soups to reveal that they are enjoying their meal; however, in American culture slurping is a vulgar manner at the dinner table. This difference exemplifies how growing up in different environments enforces different mannerisms through cultures.

While studying this method, I started to reflect upon my whole life and realized that sometimes I do not practice things that are prevalent in my culture. I am Korean and the utensil that most Koreans utilize are chopsticks. I, however, have always chosen to use forks because they were more easily accessible for me. This made me think and wonder: How to anthropologists utilize these comparisons if within each culture some might practice other things?

I started to further my research with this intriguing question in mind. I stumbled upon a website by Yale University entitled " The Return of the Comparative Method in Anthropology." This title alone left me with the question of: The Return? When did it leave? I continued reading this article and figured out that this idea of a comparative method has been the center of a debate sine the early 1800s. The debate consisted of questioning whether data of human evolution was better found through science or history. Which circles back to my original question. According to Borofsky, the comparative method"[does] not necessarily prove a point. But they help to make sense of data about a group by broadening the frame of analysis. They offer the opportunity for new insights and syntheses” (Borofsky 2019). So, from my research I have come to the conclusion that this method is utilized more as background information that can essentially back up other forms of research.

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