Going Full Frontal: Two Modalities of Comparison in Social Anthropology

In: Regimes of Comparatism
Author: Matei Candea

Abstract: Why, despite repeated critiques and self-critiques, do anthropologists persist in invoking radical distinctions between an exoticised ‘them’ and a familiar ‘us’? How can a form of comparatism which is so obviously ‘problematic’ in both epistemological and political terms, still be held up as fundamental by so many anthropologists, even as it is nevertheless eschewed by other parts of the discipline? This chapter argues that the key to this paradox lies in stepping back to see that such ‘frontal’ us-them comparisons are only one of a pair of comparative heuristics which anthropologists persistently deploy. The converse and complementary form – ‘lateral comparison’ – consists in laying cases side by side and making abstraction of the observer’s own position. The attraction and persistence of frontal comparison is thus explained by noting that it is only half of what anthropologists in fact do (however ‘fully frontal’ they may imagine themselves to be). Once we see it as one of two interlinked comparative heuristics, frontal comparison is cut back down to size: it is neither the ‘core’ of anthropology, nor its evil demon, but merely a technique with distinctive affordances, and distinctive limitations. It is neither frontal comparison alone, nor lateral comparison, but rather their complementary interplay, which gives anthropological comparatisms, despite their diversity, the allure of a shared regime.