Comparing What? Conceptualising comparison in migration and urban studies


Nicholas DeMaria Harney (The University of Windsor) & Andrea Mubi Brighenti (University of Trento)

In this session, contributors will be asked to explore the myriad forms of comparison that are explicit and implicit in ethnographic work. As Evans-Pritchard is reported to have said, ‘There is only one method in anthropology, the comparative method – and that is impossible.”

While the reflexive turn in ethnography displaced explicit reference to an evolutionist comparative method, embedded in our practices of ethnographic representation, delimiting field sites and implicitly, if unspoken, construction of ‘cultural units’ lingers questions of temporality, morality and value. In what ways do temporality, morality and value implicitly structure our selection of field sites, conceptual tools and research questions?

As Appadurai noted, there is a tendency for places to become connected to specific research questions, exemplars of particular issues. A result of this tendency, analysis in those sites becomes restricted to a related set of questions and the interpretive process can lead to distortion. How do certain keywords or conceptual terms that emerge out of placed-based situated ethnography become metonyms for the studied sites themselves and therefore displace or discourage other forms of inquiry?

Ethnography’s strength is its intimate, on-the-ground observation, interpretation and analysis of complex social realities and the improvisational, contingent aspects of the everyday. Ethnographers rely on intimate, experiential engagement with a group of people building narratives that address a situated social setting. How does this place-based and intimate, interpersonal form of research and knowledge production create challenges for comparison across place-based sites?

Furthermore, how do the universalized pressures on academic research agendas configure comparisons? Funding agencies’ insistence on the policy relevance of research projects and conformity to the increasing demands of University audit measures impose agendas both explicit and implicit on comparative research. What might be the epistemological consequences of these normative pressures, measures and values on our research projects?

Ethnographers play an ambivalent game, at once suggesting that their interpretation of a fragment of social life speaks to some greater conceptual insight, but at the same rejecting the imposition of universal claims and models that reinforce inequalities, erase contingences, difference and sociality. In this session, contributors are asked to explore the challenges and uncertainties of comparison. We invite papers dealing with issues such as:

  • Constructing comparisons in/through ethnographic research
  • Epistemological, methodological and practical challenges in the construction of the units of comparison
  • Understanding comparative migration studies and comparative urbanism through the lenses of ethnographic research
  • The relevance of place-based approaches in migration and urban studies for developing comparative research
  • Critical reflections on the explicit and implicit politics of comparative research


Comments are closed.