Related Fields: Comparative Sociology
Comparative sociology (also referred to as comparative-historical sociology) is a branch of sociology that compares the social processes and phenomena of different societies, cultures, or countries or that examines variance within a single society, culture, or country over time. This subspecialty of sociology can help social scientists better understand how and why differences arise between cultures over time. For the most part, comparative sociology depends on secondary analysis to perform its studies, in particular the tools of comparative research and historical research. Although in most cases, first-hand data are preferable to secondary data. If used appropriately, these data can assist the social scientist in both building and testing theories. Comparative-historical sociological studies can be of great benefit not only to scientists trying to better understand the differences between cultures and societies, but also in more pragmatic ways to business people and governments who are trying to deal effectively with individuals and groups from other, dissimilar cultures.
Comparative sociology (sometimes referred to as comparative-historical sociology) is a branch of sociology that compares the social processes and phenomena of different societies, cultures, or countries or examines variance among social processes and phenomena within a single society, culture, or country over time. The major goals of comparative sociology are to gain a better understanding of the differences and similarities of societies across cultures and along history. In addition, the methods of comparative sociology are increasingly being turned to investigations of the impact of globalization on social processes and phenomena.
Although its aims are similar to those of sociology in general, comparative sociology relies heavily on two methods of unobtrusive research: comparative research and historical research. Comparative research is an approach to sociological research in which data from a variety of groups (e.g., different periods in history or different countries) is compared to examine differences in social phenomena or to determine why these differences exist. Comparative research allows social scientists to study phenomena or processes that occur in many different settings. For example, a researcher might be interested in the phenomenon of the age stratification and want to know whether or not this phenomenon occurs in all cultures and if there are any variations in the ways in which societies are stratified according to age. To learn more about this phenomenon, he or she might perform a cross-cultural research study that compares the manifestations of age stratification in societies around the globe. Historical research is an approach to research that uses data (e.g., artifacts, records) from the past to draw conclusions about earlier stages in a society's development. Historical research uses secondary analysis of historical data to get a picture of how social phenomena evolve over time. Historical research can be extremely longitudinal in nature, such as an analysis of the processes associated with the progress of an aboriginal society from being hunters and gatherers to be agrarian in nature, using the various recorded accounts of the tribe over the span of generations. Other historical sociological research can be more recent in nature or use artifacts rather than formal written accounts. For example, a sociologist might examine the formation of gangs in a juvenile detention facility by analyzing the graffiti left on the walls of cells and common rooms.
Societal development is typically not revolutionary in nature, but depends on sociocultural evolution over spans of time. Because of this characteristic of social change, in some instances the only way to understand how social processes evolve is to take a comparative-historical approach. However, this approach is not without its drawbacks. First, the use of secondary data means that the researcher is limited to what data are available. It is not always possible to find available data sets that contain the data that one needs to test one's theory or hypothesis. Further, the data necessary to test one's hypothesis or theory simply may not exist. This is particularly true of historical data from periods long past in which even word meanings may have changed. Second, unless one has collected the data oneself, it is virtually impossible to be completely confident in the quality of the data. Particularly when one is using qualitative data, without having trained observers who are all interpreting phenomena in the same way, one may potentially be attempting to compare apples and oranges. For example, in historical situations when conquering soldiers make comments about aboriginal tribes, it may be impossible to filter out the effects of their social prejudice. Similarly, historical observers often find what they expect to find. So, for example, the use of a digging stick or hoe might seem backward to an observer from a society that uses a plow. Depending on how the observer recorded his or her observations, the twenty-first-century researcher might not be able to tell whether the recorded comment says more about the observer or the observed. On the other hand, particularly when attempting to make comparisons of the development or changes in a society over time, it is often impossible to use anything but secondary data. However, information about the historical developments of a society can be of great use when trying to understand why the contemporary society works the way it does. In such situations, there is no choice but to use historical data.
Like other types of sociological research, comparative sociology can apply both deductive and inductive reasoning to draw conclusions about societies. Inductive reasoning is a type of logical reasoning in which inferences and general principles are drawn from specific observations or cases. Inductive reasoning is a foundation of the scientific method and enables the development of testable hypotheses from particular facts and observations. As shown in Figure 1, in inductive reasoning, one reasons from specific observations (e.g., historical data about the way a society develops) to extrapolate general principles (e.g., how societies in general develop). Inductive reasoning is used to build a theory. Deductive reasoning, on the other hand, is a type of logical reasoning in which it is demonstrated that a conclusion must necessarily follow from a sequence of premises, the first of which is a self-evident truth or agreed-upon data point or condition. Deductive reasoning is the foundation upon which predictions are drawn from general laws or theories. Deductive reasoning starts with general principles (e.g., a theory of societal development) and predicts behavior or can be used to test a theoretical model.
Both inductive and deductive reasoning are important for understanding processes and phenomena and advancing the state of a science. However, Kiser and Hechter observe that increasingly, comparative-historical sociology has come to rely on inductive rather than deductive reasoning (1991). Unfortunately, this trend has resulted in inadequate specifications of the underlying causal relationships and mechanisms that result in the observations. Although such information is of interest, without the concomitant information on causality, it is little more than descriptive. Adequate explanations in science must include explanations of causality: why did an observed phenomenon occur? Philosophically, causality cannot be observed, but must be inferred. Without the application of both inductive and...
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