seeking refs on comparative work

Wade Tarzia (wade@PMC.UCONN.EDU)
Wed, 31 Jul 1996 10:29:44 -0400

Hello -- I'm seeking opinions and references on the use of comparisions or
analogies in anthropological research (esp. folkloric, but not limited to
it). By all means, speak to me in general or specific terms. This is my
request in a nutshell. What follows is the context for my request, which
probably isn't critical reading but may focus the issue for some.

I am aware that the making of ethnographic analogies is risky and seems to
be quite out of favor. Since I sometimes work on medieval folklore, which
is recorded in manuscripts and is thus of uncertain origin (ie, we know
little of context, oral or literary basis in creation, what mixture of
traditional and nontraditional elements, etc.).

When I was a graduate student I was prone to making many kinds of analogies
-- for example, I wondered if study of modern African
warrior-cattle-herding people might illuminate the actions of heroes
depicted in medieval Irish sagas (which depicted warrior-cattle-herders).
In publishing some of this work I ran into peer reviewers who reacted who
reacted with extreme distaste as well others for whom the issue did not
seem critical (at least in the way I had stated it). Since I took my PhD
out of an English department, the issue *then* wasn't an issue because the
professors were either (1) intrigued by the comparisons and my
anthropological approach or (2) entirely mystified by why I had strayed so
far from Shakespeare ;-) and were thus out of the picture from the start.
(now I wish I gone through an anthro dept. -- there are no jobs in either
discipline, so why not? But that's another story.)

I was lucky enough to recruit an archaeologist for my dissertation
committee, who kept me out of serious trouble, but still the issue has not
evaporated for me. Though I recognize the roles of contingency and
tradition-dependence in human behavior, I have imagined the similar working
of the human mind (in at least very broad terms) and somewhat similar
social parameters (for example, the needs of chiefdom societies with a
pastoral component) can produce similar responses within some range of
options (ie, both medieval Irish saga and modern Arabic R'wala nomads used
the concept of ritualized raiding involving attacks deemed honorable or
dishonorable -- is this coincidence or a useful control over conflict in
societies with somewhat fluid social links operating through kinship, such
that reduction of conflict might avoid kinship conflicts? etc., etc., just
an example, don't focus on this specific).

Please make me aware of publications that may have treated the use or taboo
against making analogies between societies separated by time and space.
And opinions are welcome, either public or private. Thanks.

--wade tarzia