Exploring the Methodical in 'the Comparative Method'
Oliver Freiberger (KHK fellow)
Comparison, in the narrower sense, has been a common and fundamental activity in the academic study of religion from the very beginning of the discipline. It has also been fundamentally criticized primarily for its potential to decontextualize and essentialize and for being used by scholars with theological, phenomenological, colonial, or other agendas. Yet comparative studies keep being produced—with varying degrees of reflexivity about the comparative process. If comparison is a subject of reflection at all, the discussed points are most often theoretical, sometimes methodological, but almost never methodical. Rarely have scholars suggested concrete and applicable frameworks and techniques for carrying out a comparative study. Summarizing a larger and more complex argument, this paper outlines such a concrete procedure of comparing. After briefly addressing various options for the research design (goals, scopes, scales, and modes of comparison), it lays out a research process that expands a model suggested by Jonathan Z. Smith and includes six steps: selection, description, comparison, redescription, rectification, and theory building. The paper briefly introduces each of these and discusses the potential benefits of the method. Finally it argues that a developed comparative method may once again become, if understood as a second-order method, a distinctive disciplinary feature of the study of religion. Considering the discipline’s long experience with comparison—albeit often employed intuitively and also problematically—a comparative method that is both based on critical reflexivity and practically applicable may even be considered interesting by other disciplines, and thus exportable.
This paper will be presented in panel The Work of Data: Methods in the Study of Religions (24-105 | 132).