The Value of Comparison

The Value of Comparison

The Lewis Henry Morgan Lectures

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Book Pages: 208 Illustrations: Published: June 2016

Author: Peter van der Veer

Contributor: Thomas Gibson

Anthropology > Cultural Anthropology, Asian Studies, Religious Studies

In The Value of Comparison Peter van der Veer makes a compelling case for using comparative approaches in the study of society and for the need to resist the simplified civilization narratives popular in public discourse and some social theory. He takes the quantitative social sciences and the broad social theories they rely on to task for their inability to question Western cultural presuppositions, demonstrating that anthropology's comparative approach provides a better means to understand societies. This capacity stems from anthropology's engagement with diversity, its fragmentary approach to studying social life, and its ability to translate difference between cultures. Through essays on topics as varied as iconoclasm, urban poverty, Muslim immigration, and social exclusion van der Veer highlights the ways that studying the particular and the unique allows for gaining a deeper knowledge of the whole without resorting to simple generalizations that elide and marginalize difference.


"The Value of Comparison gives a rather unflinching critique of Western cultural assumptions while firmly seated in the very field it scrutinizes. . . . [Van der Veer] does not merely critique traditional methods and pathways of analysis used in sociological research, but offers concrete examples and discussions where a more nuanced and complex comparative method can be applied and produce better results." — Juli L. Gittinger, Reading Religion

"Van der Veer advocates the investigation of specific ethnographic contexts, which he calls 'fragments of social life'—such as caste, class, regional identity, gender, and gift exchange—in order to highlight comparisons.  . . . Surely, a truly holistic approach for twenty-first- century anthropology ought to be a combination of van der Veer’s fragmentary/comparative model with the empirical findings of cognitive psychology, neuroscience, behavioral economics, evolutionary biology, and social psychology, as well as intensive ethnographic research." — Raymond Scupin, Journal of Anthropological Research

“Self-consciously intent on fragmenting certainty, Peter van der Veer makes a very convincing case for the productive instability and provocative inconclusiveness of definitive conclusions. As all good books do, this one opens outward to suggest as many questions as it answers.” — Joseph S. Alter, Pacific Affairs

"Van der Veer’s project is not to tell the origin stories of anthropology, but look to the future where the comparative anthropological lens will focus on crucial sociocultural ‘fragments’ to dismantle the logic of Western modernity and rationality. This informative and theoretically sophisticated work will serve as an important reckoner to that end." — Debjani Chakravarty, International Sociology

"[A] fresh and lucid text. . . . Putting comparison back on the agenda is timely and necessary not only for organizing our research projects but also for finding a way out of the partly imposed and partly self-chosen relative isolation in which anthropologists often find themselves in academia and public debate." — Birgit Meyer, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory

"This book is very welcome as a message from anthropology to the rest of the social sciences in a time when big data and calls for predictability (opinion polls), relevance, applicability, and reliability (surveys, 'hard' facts, large-scale analysis with universal validity) are dominant is public academic discourse. This book is a defense for fragmentary knowledge, for slow and thorough knowledge that cannot rely on taken-for-granted universals that characterize, for instance, quantitative methodologies, rational choice theory, and evolutionary theory. This I applaud!" — Annelin Eriksen, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory

"I challenge any reader not to come away from it feeling both wiser and better informed about its empirical subject matter, and invigorated about the pragmatic power of anthropological comparison." — Matei Candea, HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory

"I am delighted with Peter van der Veer’s audacious, learned, new book, which explains exactly what comparison is and is not, how it should and should not be done, and then provides extensive examples from his own research in and on India and China. . . . The Value of Comparison is a polemical book. I recommend forming discussion groups in departments and graduate seminars to see what sticks and then to use it." — Susan D. Blum, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

"Passionately defending a critically informed anthropological method, Peter van der Veer takes on big names and massively funded projects in the social sciences—and he does not suffer fools gladly. He exposes the 'emperor's clothes,' critically revealing the persistence of unexamined Western cultural presuppositions while challenging the tendency toward generalization and cultural essentialism in the social sciences and the political uses of notions of civilization and civility to exclude unwanted others." — Kenneth Dean, coauthor of Ritual Alliances of the Putian Plain

"Without question, The Value of Comparison will be a widely read book among those in search of a framework for more trenchantly confronting a world and a public discourse increasingly dominated by simplistic, positivistic, and poorly informed ideas about the nature of society. Peter van der Veer is especially effective in debunking the implicit binary assumption that treats an undifferentiated West as 'rational' and an equally undifferentiated 'Rest' as 'religious.' What van der Veer has to say is of paramount importance." — Michael Herzfeld, author of Cultural Intimacy: Social Poetics and the Real Life of States, Societies, and Institutions


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Peter van der Veer is Director at the Max Planck Institute for the Study of Religious and Ethnic Diversity at Göttingen, Germany and Distinguished University Professor at Utrecht University. He is the author of several books, including The Modern Spirit of Asia: The Spiritual and the Secular in China and India.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Foreword / Thomas Gibson  vii
Acknowledgments  xi
Introduction  1
Part I. The Fragment and the Whole
1. The Comparative Advantage of Anthropology  25
2. Market and Money: A Critique of Rational Choice Theory  48
Part II. Civilization and Comparison
3. Keeping the Muslims Out: Concepts of Civilization, Civility, and Civil Society in India, China, and Western Europe  61
4. The Afterlife of Images  80
Part III. Comparing Exclusion
5. Lost in the Mountains: Notes on Diversity in the Southeast Asian Mainland Massif  107
6. Who Cares? Care Arrangements and Sanitation for the Poor in India and Elsewhere  130
A Short Conclusion  147
Notes  155
Bibliography  171
Index  183
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-6158-9 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-6139-8
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