Elements of a Comparative Methodology in the
Study of Religion
Department of Asian Studies, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX 78712, USA; firstname.lastname@example.org
Received: 15 January 2018; Accepted: 27 January 2018; Published: 29 January 2018
While comparison has been the subject of much theoretical debate in the study of religion,
it has rarely been discussed in methodological terms. A large number of comparative studies have
been produced in the course of the discipline’s history, but the question of how comparison works as
a method has rarely been addressed. This essay proposes, in the form of an outline, a methodological
frame of comparison that addresses both the general conﬁguration of a comparative study—its
goal, mode, scale, and scope—and the comparative process, distinguishing operations of selection,
description, juxtaposition, redescription, as well as rectiﬁcation and theory formation. It argues that
identifying and analyzing such elements of a comparative methodology helps, on the one hand,
in evaluating existing comparative studies and, on the other, in producing new ones. While the article
attempts to present the methodological frame in a concise form and thus offers limited illustrative
material, the authors of the other essays in this collection discuss rich historical-empirical cases as
they test the frame on their own comparative studies.
comparison; method in the study of religion; redescription; rectiﬁcation; theory-formation;
methodology; comparative method
From the early days of the academic study of religion until today, comparison has been
an important feature of the discipline. It was, and is, practiced in many different ways, while being
reﬂected upon, praised, and scorned in heated theoretical debates. Interestingly, while scholars
frequently speak of “the comparative method”,
they are almost always more interested in the adjective
(“comparative”) than in the noun (“method”). Normally “comparative method” is simply a synonym
for “comparison” or for generic terms like “comparative approach” or “comparative perspective.”
How comparison actually works as a method in the study of religion has not been discussed in greater
detail so far. This raises the question: How seriously should we take the designation “method” when
it comes to comparison? In his excellent survey chapter on comparison in the Routledge Handbook of
Research Methods in the Study of Religion, Michael Stausberg addresses this point (Stausberg 2011, p. 34):
[C]omparison is most often not practised as a separate method, but as a research design, i.e.,
as a framework for the collection and analysis of data and the analysis of research problems.
Comparative research designs use different kinds of techniques or tools for the collection
of data (i.e., methods in a more narrow sense), for example discourse analysis, content
analysis, document analysis, philology, hermeneutics, historiography, phenomenology,
Conversely, while comparative research designs engage speciﬁc methods, many methods
in turn operate comparatively. It bears pointing out that comparison is part of the
working routine of most methods. On this more basic level, comparison works in the
A few random examples from the history of scholarship are (Müller 1872;Jordan 1908;Haydon 1922;Wach 1924,1945;
Pettazzoni 1959;James 1961;Widengren 1971;Smith 1978;Rudolph 1997;Segal 2001,2006;Roscoe 2008;Ammon 2012).
Religions 2018,9, 38; doi:10.3390/rel9020038 www.mdpi.com/journal/religions
Religions 2018,9, 38 2 of 14
most unspectacular ways and is largely uncontroversial. To begin with, the formation
of concepts and classiﬁcations and related forms of systematization rely on comparison,
which therefore is enshrined in all research methods. Moreover, comparison of data is
standard practice in all scholarly methods.
These are important observations. On the one hand, comparison often serves as a broader
analytical framework—a research design rather than a research method. On the other hand, it is so
fundamentally embedded in most research methods that it can hardly be recognized as a separate
method. Consequently, Stausberg’s article on comparison was placed, in the Handbook, not under
“methods” but under “methodology,” alongside articles on epistemology, feminist methodologies,
research design, and research ethics.
While comparison can certainly be categorized this way, I would like to explore the—perhaps
less frequently occurring—cases to which Stausberg’s ﬁrst sentence alludes: “Comparison is most often
not practised as a separate method” (my emphasis). How do we envision comparison in the study
of religion when it is, intentionally and explicitly, practiced as a “separate method”? In other words,
how are studies to be conducted whose primary research questions can only be answered by means of
a comparative operation?
First, it is important to note that the points Stausberg makes in the ﬁrst paragraph of the quote
remain valid. Comparison cannot replace the listed techniques and tools, the “methods in a more
narrow sense”—philology, content analysis, document analysis, etc. While the comparative research
question informs the selection of the comparands, comparison itself is not a method that can or should
be used in the ﬁrst description and analysis of data. I suggest classifying it as a second-order method,
which presupposes ﬁrst-order-method research.
It seems that comparing two or more items can be
productive only if those items are being seriously studied.
I wish to argue that like the methods used
for the primary study of data, the second-order method of comparison features some elements that may
permit us to view it as a method in the sense of an organized and controlled (or controllable) procedure.
In the following I propose a methodological frame of comparison that consists of such elements.
In their introduction to the above-mentioned Handbook, Michael Stausberg and Steven Engler deﬁne
a scientiﬁc method as “the generally accepted mode of procedure in the sciences in a broader sense
(including the humanities)” (Stausberg and Engler 2011, p. 4). Since comparison has rarely ever been
discussed in methodical terms in the study of religion, it is hard to predict whether the following
description will be generally accepted. But I believe that the elements discussed here are largely
familiar to practicing comparativists, even if the terms may be partly new. My primary goal is to
provide analytical categories, that is, a vocabulary that enables us to speak about the methodical
components of comparison that most comparativists more or less intuitively exert in their scholarly
practice. I argue that identifying and analyzing such elements of a comparative methodology may
help in evaluating existing comparative studies and also in producing new ones.
The following description of the methodological frame has two sections. The ﬁrst outlines
the general conﬁguration of a comparative study: Goals, modes, scales, and scopes. The second
discusses various (potential) operations in the comparative process: selection (of comparands and
the tertium comparationis), description (of data), juxtaposition, redescription, as well as rectiﬁcation (of
I borrow this general classiﬁcation from sociological systems theories that speak of ﬁrst-order and second-order observation
(see Foerster 1984, pp. 258–71; Luhmann 2000, pp. 54–67; Luhmann 2004, pp. 155–66). There ﬁrst-order observations are
direct observations of discernible objects, while second-order observations are “observations of observations.” Similarly,
the comparative method is entirely dependent on the conclusions resulting from ﬁrst-order methods, and it opens up a new
interpretative dimension that is beyond the scope of ﬁrst-order methods.
Note that this analytical distinction serves the sole purpose of highlighting the methodical elements of comparison.
In scholarly practice, comparison is always closely entwined with ﬁrst-order methods.
I agree with Michael Stausberg (personal communication) that the name that we eventually give the operation (“method” or
“research design”) is of minor relevance. I speak of “method” here only because I intend to highlight aspects that are
methodical in a broad sense.
Religions 2018,9, 38 3 of 14
scholarly categories) and theory formation. For the purposes of this essay, I will discuss each element in
a brief and concise manner; a more extensive discussion is in preparation. Since the other essays in the
present journal issue provide deep analyses of particular case studies, I will also keep the discussion of
1. The Conﬁguration of a Comparative Study
Every comparative study is conﬁgured in a certain way with regard to its goal(s), mode(s), scale,
and scope(s). However, the decisions that lead to its ﬁnal conﬁguration are rarely all made at the outset.
More often, new insights emerging during the course of the research process yield reconsiderations
and revisions of preliminary decisions. Thus the categories proposed here—which are also linked to
one another in important ways—, are set up and deﬁned merely for analytical purposes. I argue that
they may be useful in evaluating (and also in conducting) comparative studies, but they do certainly
not reﬂect a linear research process. Research ﬂows are often complex and unpredictable.
1.1. Goals of Comparison
The most general question “Why compare?” is almost as philosophical as the question
“Why do research?” and thus beyond the limits of this methodological discussion. Yet every
comparative study has its own agenda and speciﬁc goals, and responsible scholars reveal and explain
these goals in the introduction to their studies. For locating the goals more broadly it is useful to
consider the disciplinary orientation and the intended audience of a study—the discourse out of which
a study emerges and the readers to whom it is meant to speak.
The concept of academic disciplines, which ideally reﬂects a division of labor, has been questioned
for some time, not least by university administrators and functionaries who believe that dissolving
disciplinary boundaries will make scholarship more efﬁcient. Time will tell if this is a productive
approach, but at this point, and for our purposes, the disciplinary orientation is still valid. The scholarly
discourse in which the author is operating, broadly revealed in a study’s bibliography, is mostly linked
to a particular discipline such as religious studies, anthropology, sociology, history, theology, etc.
Even more than the works that are cited (and especially those that are cited favorably), the subject
at the very core of the inquiry determines this afﬁliation. Does the study strive to advance, ﬁrst and
foremost, the understanding of religion (religious studies), culture (anthropology), society (sociology),
history (history), God or the sacred (theology)? Clearly this oversimpliﬁes the matter outrageously.
Identifying the abstract subject at the heart of the scholar’s interest (religion, culture, society, etc.)
must certainly not be understood in a reductionist way. But it might be a helpful ﬁrst step towards
appreciating a study. Acknowledging the disciplinary orientation helps assess a study appropriately
and fairly and can prevent unnecessary conﬂicts. For example, when a study is situated in a theological
discourse and is interested, in the ﬁnal analysis, in God or the sacred, it is quite pointless to criticize it
for not advancing the general understanding of religion—and vice versa.5
Aside from the disciplinary orientation a study’s goal is also determined by the audience to whom
it is meant to speak. Clues can be found in the list, in the publisher’s catalogue, of potentially interested
reader groups or, for a journal article, in the journal’s proﬁle. While many comparative studies are
written primarily for readers in the author’s own and related disciplines, some studies are directed at
a more general audience. Since comparative studies do normally not provide general introductions to
speciﬁc ﬁelds of study but rather make a particular argument, it is useful to ask to which non-academic
discourse the author intends to contribute or, in other words, which impact on public discourse s/he
wishes to have. If the primary goal is non-academic, a close look at the comparative method is in
order, for such a study’s beneﬁt for scholarship may be low. Some studies of this sort place a one-sided
focus either on similarities (in order to help rationalize a political conﬂict, e.g., between Catholics
5See (Freiberger 2007, pp. 295–300) for an example of such misunderstanding.
Religions 2018,9, 38 4 of 14
and Protestants in Northern Ireland) or on differences (in order to demonstrate the superiority of
one religious group over the other).6
For the study of religion, pursuing two goals, description and classiﬁcation, seems particularly
A comparative study whose primary goal is description aims at a better understanding
of a particular historical-empirical item by means of comparison. Comparing that item with other
items can serve a heuristic purpose by identifying aspects and facets that would otherwise be missed
or neglected. It can produce insights by de-familiarizing the familiar. And it can be the method for
testing hypotheses and causal analyses that aim at a more nuanced description of the respective
item. This goal corresponds to the illuminative mode of comparison discussed below. Second, a study
whose primary goal is classiﬁcation uses comparison to form, apply, critically evaluate, and reﬁne
metalinguistic terminology in order to classify religious phenomena. This goal corresponds to the
taxonomic mode of comparison. While it seems useful to separate these two general goals analytically,
they can certainly complement each other, even within a single study.
1.2. Modes of Comparison
Jonathan Z. Smith coined the term “mode of comparison” in his article, “Adde Parvum Parvo
Magnus Acervus Erit,” originally published in 1971 (Smith 1978), and discussed it further in his more
widely quoted essay, “In Comparison a Magic Dwells” (Smith 1982).
In accordance with Smith I
understand modes as general styles of comparison that reﬂect both the spirit in which scholars
compare and, to a certain degree, the goals of the individual study. Having reviewed previous
scholarship Smith suggests that each and every study had been conducted in one of four modes of
comparison—what he calls the ethnographic, encyclopaedic, morphological, and evolutionary modes.
Smith’s model highlights certain methodical deﬁciencies: The ethnographic mode (which, I suggest,
should better be called the spontaneous-associative mode) displays an undue use of intuition;
the encyclopaedic mode yields superﬁcial categorizations of little analytical value; the morphological
mode decontextualizes phenomena in problematic ways; and the evolutionary mode posits analogies
based on the broader theory of evolution. In Smith’s argument, the modes are meant to reveal the
deﬁciencies of past scholarship (which he therefore sweepingly dismisses). While his conclusions
raise further questions for discussion, the modes may be useful for the analysis of comparative
studies—devoid of their polemical overtones and slightly modiﬁed. We should replace the misleading
name of the ﬁrst mode (see above) and refrain from sweepingly applying the morphological mode, the
prime example of which is Eliade’s work, to all classiﬁcatory comparisons, because some avoid the
described pitfalls. Further, it is important to note that the modes are not mutually exclusive but can
appear, in some combinations, together in one and the same study. With these modiﬁcations, Smith’s
four modes can be useful tools to test and evaluate comparative studies.
Another model, suggested by David Freidenreich, distinguishes four modes as well, but does so
quite differently (Freidenreich 2004). Freidenreich’s ﬁrst mode describes studies that display a strong
focus on similarity and downplay or ignore differences between the comparands. The second mode,
accordingly, refers to studies with a one-sided focus on difference. Freidenreich presents telling
examples and argues that such approaches might serve certain political, social, or religious agendas
well but produce few new conclusions for the study of religion. Studies in the third mode display
a focus on genus-species relationship, constructing (or deconstructing) a genus (such as religious
nationalism, scripture, or myth) by comparing various historical “species” and identifying differences
6See below, the discussion on modes of comparison and (Freiberger 2016, pp. 61f).
This pair corresponds, to a certain extent, to the widely-used pair of “interpretation and explanation.” The latter, however,
comes with heavy baggage. For some, these two reﬂect goals of the humanities and the sciences, respectively, and some play
one off against the other (see, e.g., Lawson 1996). For some advocates of the cognitive science of religion, “explanation”
has become a goal that is deﬁned in particular ways, referring to cognitive, psychological, evolutionary, and other ways to
“explain” religious phenomena. The goal of classiﬁcation suggested here is more modest.
8The following is a brief summary of a longer discussion presented in (Freiberger 2016).
Religions 2018,9, 38 5 of 14
and similarities between them. The fourth mode describes studies that use comparison to refocus,
that is, to understand phenomenon a better in the light of phenomenon B, with a refocused lens.
Considering the mentioned weaknesses of some modes, two modes, which I propose to call the
illuminative and the taxonomic mode, appear most promising for the study of religion. They correspond to
the above-mentioned goals of description and classiﬁcation, respectively, and echo the last two modes
of Freidenreich’s model.
The illuminative mode aims at illuminating a particular historical-empirical
item, especially assumed blind spots, by drawing comparatively on other cases. This mode is
asymmetric because the other cases are not studied in great detail in their own right; they simply help
to illuminate the item at the center of attention. For example, cross-cultural comparison has been used
to illuminate the depictions of sacriﬁcing gods on ancient Greek vases (Patton 2009) or the meaning
of giant stone footprints at an Iron Age temple in Syria (Thomas 2008). The taxonomic mode, on the
other hand, aims at forming or modifying meta-linguistic typologies, taxonomies, classiﬁcations, or
categorizations and thus at theory-formation. It is symmetric because every “species” of a “genus”
receives equal attention.
A recent example is the theorization of conceptions of the afterlife based on
a comparative study of early civilizations (Shushan 2009).
Again, both modes may appear in one study. An example is my own comparison of discourses
about asceticism (= the genus) in Br
ical texts from ancient India and Christian texts from
late-antique Egypt (= two species). As a result of the comparison I was able to describe the
structure of the asceticism discourse in theoretical terms, including a classiﬁcation of its elements
(Freiberger 2009, pp. 249–58)
. While the primary mode of this study was taxonomic, the illuminative
mode was employed as well. For example, the frequent encounter with the ascetic ideal of sedentariness
in the Christian Apophthegmata Patrum helped me identify and acknowledge the few passages in the
ads that praise the ascetic practice of remaining in one place (as opposed
to the otherwise omnipresent ideal of wandering about); here one source illuminated the other
(see Freiberger 2009, pp. 235–38; Freiberger 2010).
Six of the modes of comparison discussed here (Smith’s four modes and Freidenreich’s ﬁrst two)
reﬂect comparative styles that seem problematic: An undue use of intuition, superﬁcial categorization,
inappropriate decontextualization, a positing of analogies that are rooted in an evolutionary
model, a one-sided focus either on similarities or on differences. On the other hand, two modes,
the illuminative and the taxonomic, seem promising. The modes thus constitute an analytical inventory
that may be useful both for evaluating existing studies and for framing one’s own.
1.3. Scales of Comparison
The scale of a comparison marks the degree to which the study zooms in on the comparands.
I appropriate the cartographic tool “scale” to indicate different levels of abstraction that maps have too.
Maps can represent large territories like a country, a continent, or the whole world (small-scale maps),
or smaller ones, like a city, a neighborhood, or a museum ﬂoor (large-scale maps).
The scale is the
degree of abstraction to which items are represented on the map. Choosing an item for comparison goes
along with determining the scale and picking a map—that is, deciding on which level of abstraction
one intends to compare. Since small-scale maps have other purposes than large-scale maps, comparing,
say, an item that is visible on a state map of Arizona with an item visible on a ﬂoor map of a museum
in New York City would need a creative explanation. Normally, productive comparative studies aim at
This also corresponds to the distinction of “descriptive” and “explanatory” comparisons made by Carter (1998);
see (Freiberger 2016, pp. 60f).
10 For the distinction between symmetric and asymmetric comparison in Comparative History see (Kocka 2009).
Note that contrary to popular usage, and perhaps counter-intuitively, a map that shows the whole world is a small-scale
map; its representative fraction is small (1:50,000,000). Likewise, a large-scale map does not represent a large territory but
a small one (e.g., 1:5000 for a town map).
Religions 2018,9, 38 6 of 14
balanced comparison, which means zooming in to the same degree for each comparand—for example,
comparing items located on two state maps (or on two museum maps) of the same scale.
This applies, mutatis mutandis, to comparison in the study of religion.
Existing studies compare
at many different points on the scale, from comparisons of particular individual persons in their
local settings to comparisons of entire religions. While the scale is continuous, it might make sense
to broadly distinguish, related to how much the study “zooms in,” three levels: Micro, meso, and
macro comparison. Micro-comparative studies zoom in on very speciﬁc items such as certain individuals
or groups, certain texts, certain objects, certain practices, etc., and compare them. Macro-comparative
studies compare entire religions, or several religions in view of one phenomenon (e.g., in studies
entitled “Sacred Places in World Religions” or the like). Located in-between, on a mid-level scale, are
meso-comparative studies, which cover more ground than micro-comparative ones but remain within
clearly deﬁned limits. It does not seem particularly useful to try and draw precisely deﬁned lines
between micro, meso, and macro comparison. They should rather be considered as rough dividers on
a zoom scale that help categorize comparative studies.
It should be noted that today many comparativists in the study of religion have reservations
towards comparison on the macro, or even meso, levels. It was macro-comparative studies, especially
approaches in the phenomenology or religion (classical examples are (Leeuw 1967;Eliade 1958;
)) that were partly responsible for the bad reputation that comparison gained in the second
half of the twentieth century. Those studies attempted to demonstrate, by presenting examples from
many different religions, the true essence of religion or of certain religious phenomena. Aside from
their religious or philosophical agenda, their main methodological weakness was, however, not the
choice of scale but rather the fact that the (macro) scale at which the conclusions were drawn
was not in accordance with the (highly eclectic) scales at which the actual study was conducted.
Selecting certain items and declaring them as representative of a religious tradition essentialized
that tradition; internal conﬂicts and discourses as well as historical change were largely ignored.
When scholars declare to compare entire religions by juxtaposing such selected items, this only
looks like macro-comparison. It is, in fact, a form of unacknowledged micro- and meso-comparisons
conducted with a macro-comparative agenda. Such studies are methodologically problematic both as
macro and as micro comparisons.
It is therefore crucial that the selected scale matches the question that a study seeks to answer.
If that is the case, from a methodological standpoint all three levels are valid. Again, the map
analogy might help clarifying this. Small-scale maps used for macro comparisons are indispensable
for answering certain questions. Only these maps show, for example, that Texas is bigger in size than
France, or that Austin, Texas (U.S.A.) and Cairo (Egypt) have almost the same latitude. Detailed maps
of Texas and France or city maps of Austin and Cairo would be quite useless for answering such
questions. I argue that macro comparison can be valid also in the study of religion if the research
question is relevant and the conclusions drawn from it remain on the macro level. Such studies would
often be based on quantitative and statistical research. One recent example is Norris and Inglehart’s
study of degrees of secularization that argues, based on surveys from eighty societies that cover about
85% of the world’s population, that a society’s degree of secularization corresponds to its members’
experience of existential security (Norris and Inglehart 2004).13
It should be noted that this analogy of maps and studies of religion is not meant to suggest that both simply reproduced
an objectively existing reality. Comparands must always be both empirically attested and theoretically constructed—as
items represented on a map are. Cartographers too have reﬂected on the inevitable selection of items to be represented
on a map, on modiﬁcations and distortions caused by the representation on maps of different scales, and on the fact that
selection and representation reﬂect certain interests and intended functions of the particular map (see, e.g., Li 2007).
(Stausberg 2011) made me aware of this study. It is no surprise that the authors are political scientists. In Comparative
Politics macro-comparison is more common than in the study of religion (see Alan S. 2008).
Religions 2018,9, 38 7 of 14
1.4. Scopes of Comparison
The category “scope” reﬂects the distance between the items compared in a study. We may
distinguish, very broadly, between contextual, cross-cultural, and trans-historical scopes. Studies with
acontextual scope compare within one historical context or cultural milieu that can be delineated
both spatially and temporally, for example the Mediterranean world in late antiquity, north-eastern
India in the 5th century BCE, or contemporary Brazil. Studies with a cross-cultural scope, on the other
hand, go beyond postulated cultural boundaries, like in a comparison of ancient Chinese and ancient
Clearly, these categories are not static and clear-cut. Spatial boundaries are often ﬂuid, and cultural
boundaries are constructions. The category “cross-cultural” is not meant to reinforce the notion that
the respective cultures can be clearly delineated and are entirely separate from each other
Juneja 2013). Rather, the categories have a speciﬁc analytical purpose. Scholar who compare in
a contextual scope normally expect connections and interaction between the comparands, whereas
scholars who conduct cross-cultural comparison normally expect unrelated developments.14
While comparison in a contextual scope is omnipresent in all historical-empirical scholarship on
religion, scholars often hesitate to label their studies “comparative.” Yet comparisons are regularly
drawn between various texts or manuscripts, ideas, rituals, objects, etc., especially for exploring
and evaluating relations between the comparands. This relational approach is common practice,
particularly in its genealogical variant, in which comparison is used to study potential borrowings
and dependency. Genealogical comparison is indispensable for historical scholarship, but it can also
come with an undue assumption of unidirectional ﬂows and linear developments and the creation of
reductionist pedigrees for certain religious phenomena (Smith 1990, pp. 46–53; Bornet 2016, pp. 73f).
Recent work in “entangled history” or “connected histories” uses a broader relational approach that
focuses on transregional ﬂows and cross-fertilization. Despite the fact that these studies often transgress
the conventionally set geographical and cultural boundaries, their scope, as deﬁned above, is still
contextual (not cross-cultural) because they study relations between the comparands. The “context” in
such studies can become very large, even global (“global history”).15
Scholars commonly contrast genealogical
(or more generally, relational) comparison with
analogical comparison, which is based on the assumption that there is no signiﬁcant historical link
between the comparands. Rather, religious concepts, practices, objects, etc. are regarded as analogical
due to observed similarities in their forms or functions. All studies conducted with a cross-cultural
scope, as deﬁned here, are analogical comparisons, and most studies with a contextual scope are
relational. Yet analogical studies can well be done with a contextual scope, but such approaches are
more complex, considering that potential links between the comparands need to be taken into account
as well (see Mack 1996, p. 257).17
Studies with a trans-historical scope are comparisons across time and always appear in conjunction
with one of the other two scopes. For example, a comparison of Hellenistic and medieval Judaism in
the Eastern Mediterranean combines trans-historical and contextual scopes; a comparison of religious
phenomena in medieval Europe and modern Japan combines trans-historical and cross-cultural scopes.
I argue that the general conﬁguration of every comparative study is constituted by a certain
combination of goals, modes, scales, and scopes. Analyzing existing studies with this differentiated
If the investigation shows that even presupposing relatedness was wrong in the ﬁrst place, the researcher would move to
an analogical comparison. If, reversely, comparands turn out to be related, the scholar could switch to a relational comparison
but does not have to, because analogical comparison is also possible when relations are attested (see below).
See (Bayly 2004;Haupt and Kocka 2004;Beyer 2006). For a recent call for a global-history approach that historicizes general
terms—and effectively rejects analogical comparison—see (Bergunder 2016).
16 In biology, “homological”, see (Smith 1990, pp. 47f).
It should be noted that in the ﬁnal analysis, as Smith notes, all comparison is initially analogical. Bringing the comparands
together in a comparative study requires the assumption, in the scholar’s mind, that they belong to the same class (Smith 1990,
pp. 50f). Nevertheless, making the distinction between relational and analogical seems useful on a pragmatic level.
Religions 2018,9, 38 8 of 14
model may not only help to identify and pinpoint potential problems but also stimulate new studies
that highlight different aspects by modifying one or the other of this elements. For scholars preparing
to conduct a comparative study the model provides a number of options to choose from when they
conﬁgure their project. Which goal and which do I wish to pursue? Can I zoom in (or out) more,
and how would that affect my project? What would happen if I modiﬁed the scope of my study in
a particular way? Recognizing the respective risks and beneﬁts of those options may lead to greater
methodological awareness, and making decisions on the conﬁguration with other possible options in
mind may yield more sophisticated research.
2. The Comparative Process
In addition to the general conﬁguration of a comparative study (by identifying goals, modes,
scales, and scopes) the comparative process can be analyzed and categorized in methodical terms
as well. Slightly revising and expanding Jonathan Z. Smith’s four-fold model of description,
comparison, redescription and rectiﬁcation (Smith 2000; described in greater detail by Burton Mack
in (Mack 1996, pp. 256–59)) we may distinguish ﬁve operations that are potentially included in
the comparative process: selection; description; juxtaposition; redescription; rectiﬁcation and theory
formation. While some activities must logically precede others (for example, an item cannot be
redescribed before it has been described), most of them occur at various and often unexpected moments
in the actual research process, and some are done repeatedly. For example, a redescription undertaken
far into the study may cause the scholar to bring in (“select”) an additional, entirely new item and
incorporate it in the comparison. Thus the order in which the ﬁve operations are presented here is
analytical and pragmatic. It does not mean to suggest a neat linear, sequential procedure. It is also
important to note that not every comparative study necessarily features all ﬁve operations; especially
the last two, redescription as well as rectiﬁcation and theory formation, are related to the respective
goals of the particular study.
The selection of the sources and the tertium comparationis is arguably the most challenging
operation for the comparativist.18 Put in general terms, every comparative act requires two (or more)
items that are to be compared (the comparands) and a point or question with regard to which they
are compared (the “third of comparison,” or tertium comparationis). For example, one may compare
two religious texts with regard to certain aspects of their content, or with regard to their authorship,
or to their religious signiﬁcance in relation to other texts, or to their ritual function as religious objects,
or with regard to any other identiﬁed feature.
All this seems fairly obvious, but a closer look reveals that the process of selecting both the
comparands and the tertium comparationis is extremely complex. Multiple factors are at play in
the selection process, from the researcher’s training and personal interests to cultural, academic,
and disciplinary frameworks and paradigms. In addition, thorough reﬂection shows that the
comparands and the tertium that eventually get chosen have been in a complex relationship—in the
mind of the scholar and possibly also in academic discourse—long before they were put forward for
comparison in an actual study. The selection of two comparands presupposes a prior act of comparison
in which a productive comparability of the two was established. In other words, the assertion that
two items deserve to be compared implies that they have already been compared.
18 Surprisingly, Smith does not include this most crucial operation in his four-fold model.
Swiss philosopher Ralph Weber speaks of a “pre-comparative tertium.” “In comparative studies, the placing of one
comparatum next to the other for the sake of subsequent comparison is not done purely at will but on the basis of a presumed
or asserted relation, which is expressive of a claim of resemblance or dissemblance (or of identity or difference) and thus is
also the result of prior comparison(s): ‘pre-comparative’ is in this sense always ‘post-comparative’” (Weber 2014, p. 162).
Religions 2018,9, 38 9 of 14
the comparands and the tertium may be modiﬁed in the course of the comparative process. Thus the
selection process appears as all-encompassing and non-linear.20
This complex activity, labeled “selection” here, is also the least transparent of the ﬁve operations
with regard to the researcher’s agency. In most scholarship in the humanities and social sciences,
the reasons for why a researcher picks a certain subject for his or her study are manifold—being
rooted not only in the academic discourse but also in very individual experiences, preferences,
and agendas—and can rarely be traced to the full extent, even by the scholar him- or herself. This is even
more relevant in comparative studies with its selection of not one, but two (or more) items and,
most importantly, of the tertium comparationis which reﬂects the envisioned connection between the
comparands (relational or analogical). The selection of the tertium in particular is closely linked to
the goal of the study and thus also to the audience for which the study is intended. Since unstated
agendas, unconsciously followed or intentionally concealed, can shape the research most effectively in
the selection process, a high level of transparency is of paramount importance.
Before juxtaposing the chosen items comparativists should provide a historical-empirical
description that situates the items in their respective socio-historical and discursive contexts.
In J. Z. Smith’s words, there is “[f]irst, the requirement that we locate a given example within the
rich texture of its social, historical, and cultural environments that invest it with its local signiﬁcance”
(Smith 2000, p. 239).
Here a major issue for reﬂection is how an “item”—for lack of a better term I am using this generic
and misleadingly reifying term as a placeholder—is to be delineated and thus separated from its
“context.” Considering parallel sociological discussions about how to deﬁne a “case” (Charles C. and
Becker 1992), one may conclude that all items to be compared—the comparands—are, simultaneously,
empirical units and theoretical constructs (see Freiberger 2018).
The degree to which they can be
identiﬁed as one or the other places them on a spectrum ranging from most theoretical to most
empirical. At one end of this spectrum are highly abstract items such as fundamentalism, syncretism,
or secularity. Fundamentalism in present-day America, for example, may be productively compared
with fundamentalism in contemporary India. Here the comparands are primarily theoretical constructs,
but they have to be studied empirically too; they need both theoretical and empirical properties. At the
other end of the spectrum are items that, at ﬁrst glance, may seem to be purely empirical, like a certain
book or a speciﬁc piece of religious art. But these have theoretical properties too, because they have
been conceptualized—both by the religious actors and by scholars—as items that can be circumscribed
and delineated from their immediate context, that stand out in a certain way, and that have a speciﬁc
religious value. Only this theorization makes them interesting for a comparative study. Smith’s remark
about the “local signiﬁcance”—which may also be called emic conceptualization—is thus closely
connected to his second point: “The second task of description is that of reception history, a careful
account of how our second-order scholarly tradition has intersected with the exemplum. That is to say,
we need to describe how the datum has become accepted as signiﬁcant for the purpose of argument.
Only when such a double contextualization is completed does one move on to the description of
a second example undertaken in the same double fashion” (Smith 2000, p. 239).
In practice, it must be noted, the description of the comparands in their contexts is also informed
by the fact that the items will enter a comparative study. The description will highlight features that are
20 This process urgently needs more analysis. See (Freiberger 2018), for some initial reﬂections.
Fitz Poole stresses this double perspective too from an anthropological perspective when he writes: “All academic studies
of religion are thus obliged to forge an explicit and precise relationship between the particular and the general in the
construction of any analysis. The particular anchors the analysis to some sense of ethnographic reality, and thus gives
it empirical force. The general makes the analysis signiﬁcant as an illuminating instance of religion, and thus makes it
applicable to the constitution of an explanation” (Poole 1986, p. 413).
Religions 2018,9, 38 10 of 14
most relevant for the subsequent comparison. The challenge lies in avoiding an overemphasis of those
particular features—and in essentializing the item by reducing it to those features. The most productive
studies aim at providing a comprehensive and rich description that takes the items’ historical-empirical
context into consideration. The general rule is that other experts in the study of the respective context
must altogether approve of the description.
The most essential operation of a comparative study is the act of juxtaposing the comparands.
In the course of this juxtaposition the researcher observes and analyzes their similarities and differences
with regard to the tertium comparationis. That both similarities and differences are equally important
becomes apparent when we consider two seemingly contradictory perspectives on them. On the
one hand, one could argue that since the comparands are separate items, that fact that they are
different is obvious; the similarities need to be pointed out. On the other hand, the fact that they enter
a comparison means that they have already been identiﬁed as members of the same class; what is
now interesting is how they differ. Since both statements are valid, a careful and balanced approach is
essential for conducting a productive comparative study. While juxtaposition is the most essential act
of comparison, it is also the most individual act for each study. Where exactly the emphasis lies in the
analysis of similarities or differences is determined by the goal of the particular study and the mode in
which it is conducted.
While the ﬁrst three operations are inherent in all comparisons, the following two may or may not
apply to a particular study. The ﬁrst, redescription, is the act of describing a historical-empirical item
once again in light of the insights gained from the juxtaposition with a different item. As Mack puts it,
“[i]t may be that something will have been learned about factors that make the two situations similar,
something about the difference another myth makes, something about the reasons for a people’s interest
in or fascination with a particular notion, role, or activity, and so forth. These insights will change
the way in which the examples under investigation are understood and thus require redescription.
A redescription will register what has been learned in the study” (Mack 1996, p. 258).22
This act of redescription particularly applies to studies conducted in the illuminative mode.
Studying an item through the lens of a different one, observing previously unnoticed features,
discovering blind spots, etc. may result in a new description of the item that is more comprehensive
or more reﬁned. The new description of an historical-empirical phenomenon reﬂects the progress in
scholarship that has been made as a result of the comparative study. Future studies of this item and
its context will have to recognize and consider the revised description. In some studies illuminating
phenomena by means of comparison happens in both (or more) ways. Arvind Sharma has called such
a multidirectional process “reciprocal illumination” (Sharma 2005).
2.5. Rectiﬁcation and Theory Formation
With the act of rectiﬁcation “the academic categories in relation to which [the exempla] have been
imagined” are rectiﬁed (Smith 2000, p. 239). Unlike redescription, rectiﬁcation does not refer to the
analysis of a particular historical-empirical item but to a revision of the deﬁnition and conceptualization
of the (meta-linguistic) categories involved in the study. In contrast to Smith, who elsewhere blends
the two terms when he says that redescription “expressed a central goal, the redescription of classical
categories to the end that these be ‘rectiﬁed’” (Smith 2004, p. 29), I follow Mack’s understanding of the
term that to rectify a category is to “rename the phenomenon of which our case studies are examples”
Note that I distinguish redescription—a new historical-empirical description of a certain item that is now enriched by the
conclusions of the comparison—from rectiﬁcation, which refers to the conceptualization of the phenomenon (see below).
Religions 2018,9, 38 11 of 14
(Mack 1996, p. 258). This separation seems analytically useful: We redescribe a concrete item in its
historical, object-linguistic context, and we rectify a metalinguistic category.
Rectiﬁcation is particularly relevant for studies that are conducted in the taxonomic mode.
The comparison of “species” results in a better conceptualization of the “genus.” A cross-cultural and
cross-tradition comparison of particular relic practices, for example, can result in identifying broader
theoretical dynamics that enrich the scholarly conceptualization of the category “relic” (Trainor 2010).
A thorough comparison of medieval Christian and Tibetan Buddhist texts can offer new insights on
how “hagiography” works (Rondolino 2015,2017).
Rectifying metalinguistic categories is an act of theorizing. According to the most general
deﬁnition in the Oxford English Dictionary a theory is “[t]he conceptual basis of a subject or area
of study” (Oxford English Dictionary Online 2015, s.v.). We may specify that theory can be regarded
as a conceptual network of a certain area of study in which various metalinguistic categories are
structurally interlinked. A comparative study may result in rectifying existing categories, but it may
also lead to the suggestion of new ones. It may even help revise or create more complex theoretical
formations. For example, a comparison of ancient Greek and early modern Indian texts can complicate
the typologies of links between religion, gender, and violence (Pasche Guignard 2015).
This contributes, eventually, to a better theoretical understanding of religion. Again, in Mack’s
words, “The point is nothing less than the construction of a theory of religion. A new designation
for a recognizable phenomenon can become a building block for constructing a descriptive system.
And the descriptions of phenomena in such a studied system can actually become mid-range axioms
that might eventually be used to build a cultural (and in Smith’s case, cognitive) theory of religion”
(Mack 1996, p. 259). In other words, a comparative study may result in the formation of a theory
about a certain religious phenomenon, and this theory can be incorporated in a larger theory of
religion. While this is one possible outcome, most comparative studies operate on lower—but equally
relevant—levels of abstraction.
The methodological frame proposed here, addressing both the conﬁguration of a comparative
study and the comparative process, describes the comparative method in the study of religion.
While many aspects could not be explored in greater detail, this outline already shows, I hope, that
comparison is a rather complex operation. The proposed categories are meant to work as an analytical
grid. The fact that some of them are ﬂexible and that several of their subcategories may overlap
acknowledges the dynamics of comparative research. Yet I argue that every comparativist makes
decisions that eventually result in a certain conﬁguration of the chosen goal(s), mode(s), scale, and
scope(s). This conﬁguration in combination with the way one chooses to proceed through selection,
description, and juxtaposition methodically deﬁnes a particular comparative study. That implies
that if some decisions were to be made differently—for example, choosing a meso-scale rather than
a micro-scale or a cross-cultural rather than a contextual scope—, the study’s conclusions could be quite
different. Thus, if it is possible to differentiate activities and identify particular choices, we might be
able to envision comparison, much clearer than we used to, as an organized and controlled operation.
I argue that a reﬁned comparative methodology provides useful tools for assessing the scholarly
value of individual comparative studies. It can expose, among other things, sloppiness, imbalanced
juxtapositions, or hidden agendas. In addition, a robust methodology of comparison also enables
comparativists to confront, with factual analysis, certain sweeping criticisms of the comparative
Much of what is regarded as problematic about comparison in the study of religion
(decontextualization, essentialization, undue generalization) should be discussed, in my view, not only
in theoretical but also in methodological terms. Identifying and isolating speciﬁc methodical problems
23 See (Freiberger 2018), for a methodological response to Carolyn Walker Bynum’s recent critique (Bynum 2014).
Religions 2018,9, 38 12 of 14
in a study effectively confronts wholesale criticism and, at the same time, provides an opportunity
to reﬁne the methodology. At the same time, reﬂecting upon the various elements of this framework
may help comparativists to conﬁgure and adjust the layout of their studies, justify their decisions, and
possibly raise the study’s level of sophistication.
Certainly I do not claim that the proposed frame is the only possible way to describe the
comparative method. An entirely different model of comparison might focus, for example, more on
the intuition of the scholar and explore how exactly this intuition works, how it is developed, and how
it distinguishes itself from the intuition that is present in other scholarship in the humanities and social
sciences. If comparison is understood as a (second-order) method, there is no reason why it should not
beneﬁt from the exchange between, and competition of, different methodological approaches—just
like we see it in the ongoing debates, in the respective ﬁelds, about the most appropriate philological,
sociological, or anthropological method. The purpose of this essay was not to outline what I think
should be an authoritative model but rather to propose a starting point for a serious, comprehensive,
and productive debate about the methodology of comparison in the study of religion—a debate that,
in my view, is long overdue.
Conﬂicts of Interest: The author declares no conﬂicts of interest.
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