CISP Online

Blog of the Centre for Invention & Social Process, Goldsmiths

Comparison as invention: Reflections on the Apples and Oranges conference


As is nicely captured on this blog, the Centre for the Study of Invention and Social Process has a strong interest in work emerging and working through concepts and methods allied to science and technology studies (STS). Yet, despite the implicitly comparative undertones in the analysis of ontological multiplicity, for instance, or the overt embrace of comparison by no less than Bruno Latour, STS seems to remain largely ambivalent towards the explicitly comparative act as a methodological tool.

The factors that have played into the turn against comparison—not only in this field, but across a broad selection of qualitative research—are numerous and have been discussed extensively elsewhere. However, one which is perhaps of particular relevance to STS has been the success of processual, follow the actor case studies, as popularised by actor network theory, in which empirical continuity is often elevated to a core methodological—and even normative—principle. Comparison, by contrast, dispenses with this (practically unrealisable?) ideal, by being quite happy to sometimes make ‘jumps’ or ‘cuts’, in which rather than being led by the empirics of a particular research object, the researcher forces objects and phenomena into relation that, outside of this artificial connection, my have little or nothing to do with one another.

Yet it is precisely these kinds of apparently artificial forms of relatedness that interests us, the CSISP based Organising Disaster (OD) team (me, Michael Guggenheim and Zuzana Hrdlickova) – as it did many other participants at a two day conference on comparison, here at Goldsmiths. Here I will try to briefly reproduce just a few of the insights that emerged over two days (and evenings) of intense and productive discussion, involving many more contributions than there is room to mention in this post (the full programme can be downloaded here). This is partly as a way of making a case for generative modes of comparison that can sit quite comfortably into empirically attentive and processually sensitive research practices.

Apples and Oranges: Practising Comparison took place across two days, in the airy setting of Goldsmiths’ Orangerie. It brought together a wide range of scholars to constructively engage in the problem of how to practically do comparison, as well as how this relates to the comparisons being done (or imposed) by others. Participants came from a number of different countries and disciplines, including sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, semioticians and architectural historians.

The event was a collaborative organisational endeavour, involving two departments (anthropology and sociology) and two research teams working on collaborative ERC funded projects (Organizing Disaster and Gambling in Europe). Both projects have been comparative from their very outset, in actively trying to provoke and contrast different insights around shared objects of concern (disaster preparedness and gambling). In both, teams of researchers are working on distinct case studies, in different national settings, with the aim of bringing these case studies into some form of comparative dialogue. The division of the case studies by nation also means that not only are both teams involved in comparison, but also that these comparisons run the risk of being accused of being particularly conventional, in seeming to be interested in taking the nation-state as unit for comparison—one of the most misused analytical black boxes out there.

I won’t go into the detailed reasons as to why, in fact, both teams would argue that this is not what they are doing, as hopefully what follows will give some pointers in that direction. That said, two points are worth highlighting. The first relates specifically to our project: that studying phenomena designed to operate at a national scale (like disaster preparedness) demands an analytical engagement with objects at that scale. This is not the same as assuming that the nation state, or other similar category, inherently contains greater explanatory value than any other. The second is a theme that cropped up again and again at the conference: that often doing comparison means trying to find ways to operate productively against, around, and through highly stable understandings of comparison held by other powerful actors—whether, for instance, deployed by funders, or those involved in our research.

Tereza Stöckelová explored some of this in her paper. She showed the effective ‘non-innocence’ of comparison, how what she called imposing the ‘frame of comparison’ involves often involving asymmetrical struggles between parties—and, importantly, that social research cannot but engage in these processes, whether it names it as such, or not. Both Hannah Jones & Ben Gidley and Marsha Rosengarten’s papers echoed these themes, in laying out possibilities for alternate comparisons to enact engagements between researchers and, for want of a better word, ‘the world out there’, along different lines. Tasked with analysing and evaluating policy interventions aimed at improving migrant integration, Hannah and Ben sought a way to successfully situate themselves within the international circulation, amongst a range of governmental actors, of competing ‘good practices’. This is a world in which comparison (of such practices) tends to be practised normatively and uncritically. But rather than avoid this tricky terrain, they sought to shift the terms of comparison to highlight the real effort needed to translate practices between settings. Marsha drew on her work on the use of randomized controlled trials in HIV prevention, to look at the potential for social science to actively introduce alternative understandings of comparison to scientists – through provocative, affectively directed visualisations or ‘diagrams’ (a term used and redeployed via Deleuze’s Foucault and work by Michael Lynch). In her case, she asked whether such work might hold the potential to challenge assumed stabilities by drawing attention to relations of movement and complexity.

This seems a good moment to mention our paper, as we too experimented with visualisation in both its written form and how we presented it (indeed, the generative capacity of the visual was something of a recurrent theme at the event). One of our main suggestions is that we need to think through the role of the ‘comparator’ in constructing comparison, drawing on a term from electrical engineering. For our project, like many others that presented at the conference, this is complicated by the fact that our comparator needs to be assembled and stabilised, by bringing together diverse individuals and technologies, in a process we call ‘calibration’ (for our partially calibrated team photo below we draw inspiration from John Stezaker’s photographic ‘marriages’). Rather than seeing the empirical as the source and guarantor of comparison (put simply, the idea that some things are automatically comparable and others are not—as Monika Krause astutely pointed out in her commentary, declaring something as inherently incomparable makes little sense), the concept of the comparator tries to direct attention to the work that comparison does in reconstituting relations between the things. This involves a process of putting new entities into the world.

Two comparators: A comparator chip and the Organizing Disaster comparator

This parallels some of the analytic turns that emerged elsewhere in the conference, whether it was seeing comparison as an ‘active process of translation’ (Kevin Hall, Torsten Heinemann and Ursula Naue), or being responsible for the creation of ‘new research assemblages’ (Elena Gonzalez-Polledo and Victoria Goddard). These each point to the way in which comparison is a lively, creative process. Perhaps, indeed, it can involve jumping in ways not prompted by the empirical material itself (although this is certainly not always the case), but, if I may, so what? For me, the productive, creative potential of comparison was most vividly demonstrated by Vita Peacock’s brilliant relocation of the category of the Melanesian ‘big man’ to the hyper-rationalist setting of the Max Planck Society. In and through the specific comparison device of analogy (again thanks to Monika Krause for this precise disambiguation), which in this case placed two worlds that are superficially devoid of any obvious connection into unprecedented relation, the Max Planck Society becomes, in front of our eyes, something different. It is this generative potential for novelty that we, the OD team see as one of the most important potential outcomes of comparison. Hopefully, then, this answers the question as to what comparison might be doing in a research centre that proclaims so readily its interest in both process and invention.