U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Comparative Myths

Does anyone find value in comparative studies? I know we have studies in the Atlantic World, transatlantic, Pacific Rim, and African Diaspora, to name just a few. But none are comparative, correct? I have a graduate school friend named Derek Catsam who does comparative work on South Africa and the United States (following in the footsteps of George Frederickson), but he also does straight up single nation history. You might know him from his latest book, Freedom’s Mainline about the Freedom Rides.

I ask the question above because I am about to head over to Denmark for a month and I am taking four students from Marian with me (and my family). The course I created for them is entitled, US-DK: Opposites Instruct. A bit too cute of title? Well, I try (and fail). The point of the course is to look at a nation that is almost the photographic negative of the US. The students and I spent the spring semester reading primarily in three areas: education, religion and foreign policy. When we compared the two countries, the students were suppose to recognize what might seem like very distinct and hopefully instructive differences. In Denmark, education is centralized and fully-funded by the state; so, for example, there is free pre-school and all college students go free and get a stipend. In foreign policy, Denmark is part of every multi-national group, otherwise it would be largely forgotten and relatively irrelevant. In religion, the Danes recognize a state church–the evangelical Lutheran church–but only attend services for ceremonial purposes, for baptisms, confirmations, and weddings. Burials are paid for by the national church as well.
Of course, the economic punch-line to these contrasts is that the Danes have a very progressive income tax system, in which the majority of the population pays over 35% of their salaries to the state. The highest bracket is around 65%, though there is a movement to lower that to below 60%. I do tell the students that during the first half of Reagan’s presidency, the highest tax rate in the United States was above 70%, now it is below 35%. The question that the students return to consistently is what do the Danes get for their taxes and what do Americans get for lower taxes.
But I also push the students to consider things that exist beyond the financial and that reside in the mythical. The reading I assign along these lines includes a classic essay from William H. McNeil entitled, “The Care and Repair of Public Myth.” What makes McNeil’s essay especially nice for this course is that he addresses ways to pick up on things in a culture that have no literal documentation. The Danes, as I told my students, will answer many questions about why they do things with the stock phrase: “because it is Danish.” And while that response can be frustrating it is also honest to a degree that one can’t get by pouring through archival sources.
But there is another aspect of McNeil’s essay that I also like. He wrote this in 1982, as Ronald Reagan and his administration were dreaming up Morning in America (and huge tax cuts). This was also the nadir of American exceptionalism–unless one wanted to argue that the United States was exceptionally evil. In light of his era, McNeil noted that America had a need for myths, perhaps they weren’t the ones being peddled by Reagan, but myths had a place in society no matter how cynical the contemporary moment had become. He suggested placing the American experience in a larger global context in order to see that the nation was not unique but embedded in trends that gave rise to both the best and worst aspect of the nation’s history. McNeil contended that doing so was “the best way to start to recognize that the American way of life is no more than one variation among many to which humanity adheres.”
My question for today is this: do others find utility in comparative studies? And if so, how best to we go about doing what McNeil encourages us to do?

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. All international studies are implicitly comparative. I don’t mean that as a methodological critique, but rather as a pedagogical pitfall which we have to address in our teaching or suffer the consequences. People intuitively understand by comparing, and build images of foreign cultures by contrast (and by assuming similarity until shown differently). I explicitly use comparison in world history quite regularly to highlight the difference between probably dispositive and irrelevant factors in historical causation.

    That doesn’t answer your question, though. I think good comparative history is hard (bad comparative history is easy, and there’s lots of it, including some works that inspired generations of productive refutation), but there are times when comparison points in useful directions. In my own work on modern Japanese migration, for example, I use comparisons to both premodern Japanese patterns to discern differences, and comparisons to other well-studied modern migrations (Mexican labor in the US, Irish emigration, etc.) to highlight issues that might be worth following up on. There’s additional value in comparisons: communication across traditional lines of expertise, getting Japan and China and Mexico and German specialists talking to each other; and, in my case, added value of deconstructing myths of Japanese uniqueness.

  2. Placing American history within a transnational and comparative frame does in my view mitigate the tendency to view the U.S. as exceptional. I don’t think you can really understand American thought without considering a global framework that is part and parcel of modernity.

    In the area of gender history a comparative approach mitigates the tendency to universalize behavior and expectations. It is easier to see gender dynamics in one region by comparing it to another. In the area of feminist thought, comparative approaches allows one to recognized the bias of liberal feminism that is at odds with other global feminisms.

    I agree with Jonathan that comparative approaches are difficult because they require expertise across national boundaries and fields. Language barriers, logistical challenges, over reliance on secondary sources, and too broad a frame can sink a project. I still hope to see more and better comparative work.

  3. I have some thoughts along Jonathan’s lines, and few of my own as well.

    I’ll go further than Jonathan and declare, dogmatically, that all critical thinking—always and everywhere—involves a component of comparison. As such, even if the author of an international or comparative studies piece goes lightly on comparison, the thoughtful reader will make up the difference. The difference between a good and bad critical-comparative thinker usually (in my experience) lies in the ability to list the details of similarities and differences—catching the grades within each half of the dichotomy.

    This is all to say that I’m pro comparison, when possible. The problem is that most universities, in my experience in history, offer few-to-no classes where this is explicitly possible. World history classes tend toward historical immersion in another country, or maybe region. And U.S. courses tend toward getting students to understand the nuances of various periods. I’ve managed to find space for comparison in my world history courses due to benign neglect. I’ve bent my world history courses toward globalization and regional studies, which allows me more latitude for making comparisons—e.g. “America’s Global Heartland,” “Indian Ocean World,” “History of Oil” (this fall), and a “Contemporary World History, 1945-Present” that I’ll bend toward globalization (not fearing insertions of U.S. history).

    It’s funny, Ray, that you bring up McNeill. I just read an article for a friend (helping him think through it) by McNeill titled “Mythistory, or Truth, Myth, History, and Historians” (AHR, 91, no. 1 (Feb. 1986): 1-10). I really didn’t like the piece, but I’ll save that for another post. – TL

  4. Thanks to you all for your constructive comments. When doing any kind of study abroad, the comparative angle is a natural product but, as you all suggest, fraught with promise and perils. One of the recurring criticisms that my colleagues have of comparative studies is the static nature of the comparisons. For example, where studies of the Atlantic world show movement and transition across time, comparative studies use snapshots of moments to build arguments off of the differences and similarities.

    I simply get stuck trying to avoid essentializing the things I am comparing. Yet, as all three of you suggest, we need to do comparative history. Who is the best among in our profession at doing this?

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