Apples and Oranges: Practicing Comparison


A two-day conference exploring sociological and anthropological concepts around comparative practice.

Apples and Oranges event poster

Apples and Oranges ran 13-14 September 2012

Qualitative social science has become uneasy about comparing: it is easily frightened by both accusations from within quantitative traditions that assert the inability of its methods to control variables precisely enough and a colonial past in which cultural comparisons had a dubious taint of racism. However, despite being a loaded term, comparisons are nonetheless routine within qualitative social science, although they are often more implicit than explicit.

We perform them in conferences where we group in thematically similar panels, in more or less strident academic debates, as well as in our everyday practices as a way to understand and contextualise our own research. However, we observe that this seemingly comparative practice is rarely named as such.

Further, we also suspect -- while being acutely aware of the problematic history of comparison as a social scientific activity, whether in the service of forms of reductive positivism or a hierarchy of cultures -- that this history does not explain the degree of ongoing sensitivities about the value of naming certain research as comparative. More directly, we suggest that abstaining from explicit comparisons unnecessarily constrains qualitative research.

This workshop seeks responses to this problematic by relating to the following topics:

  • Accounts of Comparative Practices: What are the difficulties of (collaborative) comparative projects? How do projects deal with cases that refuse comparison, with fields that loose their comparative features and with theoretical concepts that fail to help to compare?
  • Comparison policing: how is (non)comparative practice enacted and policed across academic life and in different disciplines?
    * Strange comparisons: What is a 'strange' comparison? What is a 'proper' comparison?
  • Incomparability/Failed comparisons:what are the limits to comparison? How are these limits performed? According to which modes of expertise?
  • Comparison and value: Is comparison a technology of commensuration? What is lost? What is gained?
  • Comparison and temporality: what kinds of comparisons are 'restudies'? To what extent do comparisons across time equate to comparisons across space?
  • Comparison, method and theory: how should theory inform comparative practice? At what point? Might experimental methodologies generate new registers for comparison?
  • Beyond comparison: which other terms and frameworks can be used to describe the value of comparative practices? Which alternatives can be proposed to the strength and authority of certain ways of doing comparison in academic discourses and beyond?


Thursday 13th September

Incomparable/Strange Comparisons

Vita Peacock (University College London)
From Melanesia to the Max Planck Society: a cross-cultural comparison of the “big-man” category

Alice Santiago Faria (Universidade Nova de Lisboa)
Comparing the incomparable: architecture in colonial India(s)

Victoria Goddard and Elena Gonzalez-Polledo (Goldsmiths, University of London)
A riddle of steel: comparing trajectories in the steel industry

Failed and Strange Comparisons

Commentator: Monika Krause (Goldsmiths, University of London)

James Dawson (University College London)
Two contexts, many understandings of politics: learning through failure to compare

Giovanni Picker (Bristol University)
Comparing stigma? An experiment on ethnographic imagination

Dialogue and Stumbling into Comparison

Marc Brightman (Oxford University)
The jaguar and the bear: theoretical contributions of interregional comparativism

Tereza Stöckelová (Institute of Sociology of the Academy of Sciences of the Czech Republic)
Apples and oranges are fruits: inquiry into the frames of comparing

Collaborations and Stumbling

Priska Gisler (Bern University of the Arts), Monika Kurath (University of Basel)
Aesthetic practices and epistemic cultures in architecture, design and the Fine Arts

Rebecca Cassidy, Claire Loussouarn, Andrea Pisac (Goldsmiths, University of London), Julie Scott (London Metropolitan University)
Embodying comparison within a ERC funded project

Friday 14th September


Commentator: Thomas Scheffer

Joe Deville, Michael Guggenheim, Zuzana Hrdlickova (Goldsmiths, University of London)
Practising collaboration, producing comparison

Georgina Born, Geoff Baker, Aditi Deo, Andrew Eisenberg and Patrick Valiquet (Oxford University)
Music, digitisation, mediation: Experimenting with decentred vectors of comparison between six singular ethnographic projects

Comparisons for Policy-Making and the Public

Thorgeir Kolshus (University of Oslo)
Comparison: relatively important?

Kevin Hall (Frankfurt University), Torsten Heinemann (Frankfurt University), Ursula Naue (Vienna University)
IMMIGENE: Comparing DNA-testing for immigration cases in Austria, Finland, and Germany

Hannah Jones (Goldsmiths, University of London), Ben Gidley (Oxford University)
Transnational soup: translating local integration policies across borders

Comparisons and Problems of Measurement

Commentator: Kate Nash (Goldsmiths, University of London)

Laura Camfield (University of East Anglia)
Measuring children’s social and cultural competencies in Sub-Saharan Africa

Sarah De Rijke (Leiden University), Paul Wouters (Leiden University, Roland Bal (Erasmus University Rotterdam), Iris Wallenburg (Erasmus University Rotterdam)
Comparing comparisons. On rankings and accounting in hospitals and academia

Comparisons with Theories as Guides

Marsha Rosengarten (Goldsmiths, University of London)
Shifting comparative registers: can a diagram rehabilitate the outlier?

Alvise Matozzi (Free University of Bozen)
Semiotics’s Razor. Using Semiotics as a Descriptive Methodology in Order to Compare Actor-Networks

Final commentator discussion: Janet Carsten (The University of Edinburgh), Jenny Robinson (University College London)


Comparison as invention: Reflections on the Apples and Oranges conference

Blog post on the conference written by Joe Deville of CSISP ONLINE: Blog of the Centre for the Study of Invention & Social Process, Goldsmiths