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Anthropology is a "comparative science" in the sense that the fieldworker always comes to the field "from another planet", and necessarily compares his own home world with the world of the field. But anthropology may also be made more explicitly comparative, when various aspects of two or more societies are contrasted systematically. The goal is then often to arrive a pattern of similarities and differences between the two societies, and then to isolate more or less well-defined factors that determine these differences (see Nadel 1952 for a classical example). Throughout much of its history, British social anthropology has tended to emphasize that anthropology is a comparative science, and classics such as Tylor, Radcliffe-Brown or Barth have given powerful demonstrations of the potential value of comparison as an anthropological tool. Though such demonstrations have also been supplied by American anthropologists (e.g. Steward, Murdock, Geertz), the general trend in American anthropology since Boas has been a certain skepticism to the entire comparative project.

It is important to realize also that comparative projects may be more or less comprehensive. The "great sociologists" (Marx, Durkheim, Weber etc.) of the 19th century were part of a very large comparative project: evolutionism. Since the First World War, anthropologists have tended towards less ambitious comparative goals. While the evolutionists attempted to use comparison to build vast typologies of all human societies, the British structural functionalists of the 1920's to 50's typically studied small groups of societies and compared specific institutions (e.g. kinship). Still later, with the growing emphasis on the reflexivity of anthropological research, the postmodernists more or less debunked the entire idea of comparison, though it was later reinstated by Strathern (1988, 1991).

In practice, almost all anthropological texts are full of small, more or less explicit comparisons - between various societies, between various aspects or sectors of the same society, between various anthropological theories, between what people say and what they do.

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