The logic of comparison: comparison as a methodology or as the main mindset in validating hypotheses?

Issue 1

“The logic of comparison: comparison as a methodology or as the main mindset in validating hypotheses? ”

Michalis Kelpanidis

Page 101-130


The main theme of this paper, which consists of three parts, is whether comparison is a special method or rather the basic logical procedure by which cognitive statements about reality are tested. In the first part, the main problem is outlined and discussed in detail. Thus, a general proposition like ‘p  q’ or, verbally, ‘if p then, and only then, q’, can be proved by comparing all cases fulfilling the condition ‘p’ with those fulfilling ‘non-p’ and by observing whether only the cases fulfilling ‘p’ fulfill also ‘q’. That comparison is the basic logical procedure underlying the proof of every cognitive proposition has been recognized by J.S. Mill and by one of the pioneers of Comparative Education, Friedrich Schneider. In Mill’s lucid formulation, “(t) he simplest and most obvious modes of singling out from among the circumstances which precede or follow a phenomenon, those with which it is really connected by an invariable law, are two in number. One is, by comparing together different instances in which the phenomenon occurs. The other is, by comparing instances in which the phenomenon does occur, with instances, in other respects similar, in which it does not” (Mill, A System of Logic, p.388). Hence, since comparison is the basic logical procedure on which the proof of cognitive propositions is based, the reasons why some sub-disciplines are called ‘comparative’ like Comparative Education or Comparative Politics do not refer to logic, but rather to pragmatics. Their specific difference from the parent disciplines to which they belong consists only in the fact that they compare units on higher aggregation levels, like educational systems, political systems or whole societies.In the second part of the paper, assertions concerning the “uniqueness” of cultures are proved, which deny the comparability of cultures by general theoretical, cross-cutting categories. In this context, the philosophical sources of these assertions, which lie in Edmund Husserl’s phenomenology and its descendant “ethnomethodology”, are disclosed and criticized. Husserl’s phenomenology was a reaction to the tremendous success of natural science at the beginning of the 20th century, at the time when Einstein’s relativity theory got its first experimental confirmation and had changed the centuries old view of the universe. The irrationality of Husserl’s phenomenology culminated in the philosophy of his famous student Martin Heidegger. The main logico-methodological argument against Husserl’s assault on psychology (and, by implication, also on sociology) is that predictions and explanations of social action are de facto possible in psychological and sociological categories, which are different forms, and even contradict, the subjective concepts of the actors emerging in their “life worlds”. In contradistinction, correct predictions of social action are impossible by relying on the actor’s every day concepts. Hence, the factual validity of the theoretical propositions of psychology, sociology and economics falsifies the arguments of the alleged “uniqueness” of cultures as isolated “life worlds” and the dogmas of cultural relativism.In the third part, examples of recent comparative, cross-national research on social mobility in advanced industrial societies are discussed, which follow the tradition of classical sociological grand theories designed by Marx, Weber and Durkheim. These theories identify the common, functionally indispensable units in all societies on the same level of development and formulate general statements in terms of these units. Thus, Marx, relying on his universal concepts of the “means of production” and of “ownership of the means of production”, has formulated his theoretical statement (disregarding here its ex post empirical falsification) that proletarianization increases with the development and maturity of capitalist production in every society, independently of its case specific features. It is certainly true, that particularistic and case specific differences of individual societies must be taken into con­sideration in ad­vance, before starting comparative research. To make this possible, explorative case studies are usually undertaken in the beginning of comparative research. As soon as this is done and the case specific features are brought to light, so that mis­interpretations of data can be avoided, the way is open to identify the universal, common elements in all cases in terms of which general theoretical statements can be formulated.To conclude, in the present situation it would be more important to do substantial comparative research in education than to quarrel about the name and about the institutional identity of Comparative Education.