Accepted paper:

Controlled comparison: method and metaphysics


Andrew Fahey (Central Land Council)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores a new form of the comparative method - controlled comparison - and its implications both for coming to terms with the typical elements of anthropological study as well as addressing several classic philosophical antinomies from a fresh perspective.

Paper long abstract:

The comparative method has a long history in Anthropology beginning with many amateur ethnologists through to Durkheim, Levi-Strauss and beyond. The classic application of the method which compared categories – such as marriage, class, politics, ritual and the like – between two or more cultures aimed to generate transcendent facts about these categories, and in the process make definite claims about others as entirely penetrable elements in a comprehensive study of the human species. Understandably this method – and its metaphysical claims to transcendent and objective insights into the worlds of others – has come under sustained criticism in recent times. However, in order to escape the impasse of alternative methods (such as deconstructionism and its positive correlate in intersectional identity politics) I am proposing a methodological and metaphysical modification to the act of comparison. By containing two or more objects in a controlled comparison (be they cultures, beings, black holes or otherwise) it may be possible to make definite claims about each insofar as these claims are also contained within the comparative relation. In this way positive, objective knowledge becomes an imminent element of the comparison, whilst the objects of the comparison always transcend total description. This method of controlled comparison may be a way for anthropology to return to generating positive knowledge about the elemental aspects of the world (including, but not confined to the classic objects of culture, society and so forth) whilst bearing in mind the important moral, methodological and metaphysical criticisms of the comparative project.

panel P35
It's elemental: anthropologies of fundamental things