The comparative method refers to “the method of comparing different societies or groups within the same society to show whether and why they are similar or different in certain respects”. By such comparisons of differences as well as similarities found in the ways of life of peoples of different groups and societies, one can find clues to man’s social behaviour.
The comparative method is not specifically a sociological method but is a method quite known in logic, and as such it is applicable to all the sciences. In the 18th century, philologists made use of this method in their study of different languages. In the 19th century, this method was used by the social investigators to find out similarities in social institutions so as to trace their common origins, Both Montesquieu and Comte used and recommended this method in the 19th century to establish and explain both differences and similarities between societies.
Throughout the 19th century there was a strong link between the use of the comparative method and the evolutionist approach. Durkheim set out clearly the significance of this method in his “The Rules of Sociological Method”. According to him, the sociological explanation consists entirely in the establishment of causal connections’. In the case of natural sciences, the causal connections could be more easily established because of facility of experiment. Since such direct experiments are out of question in sociology, we are compelled to use the method of indirect experiment, i.e., comparative method-says Durkheim
Durkheim in his work “Division of Labour in Society” compared the legal systems of different societies at the same time and at different levels of development. In that he used law as an index of the moral character of society. By comparison “he tested his hypothesis that an increase in the division of labour is accompanied by a change in the nature of social integration or solidarity”.
Further, Durkheim in his study of “Suicide ” aimed to discover the social causes of suicide by relating the rates of suicide in different social groups to characteristics of the groups. He showed that “the suicide rates varied inversely with the degree of social cohesion and with the degree of stability of moral norms”.
Tylor used this method in the study of institutions connected with the family among primitive people and was able to show that the practice of mother-in-law avoidance was correlated with the system of matrilocal residence.
Recently, S.M. Lipset and R. Bendix have compared “rates of social mobility in different industrial societies to show that these rates are governed largely by the stage or degree of industrialisation.”
Thus, by employing this method it may be possible to explain the significance of a custom or practice, though it varies from one society to another, by studying the motives behind it.
By adopting this method it is quite possible to establish correlations between crime and urbanisation, between family size and social mobility, between social class and educational attainment, between urban living and divorce or delinquency rates, etc. Studies of this kind have resulted in a number of generalisations also.
It is true that the comparative method has its own limitations. Critics have pointed out that “what appear superficially to be similar institutions may, in fact, be very different in the societies being considered”. Further, “an institution detached from the context of the whole society in which it functions may easily be misunderstood”.
These comments denote practical difficulties involved in the application of the method. As Bottomore has suggested these difficulties could be minimised by limiting the range of comparisons to societies which are broadly similar.
In spite of its deficiencies, the comparative method has been widely used today in sociological studies. E.A. Freeman claimed that “the establishment of the comparative method of study has been the greatest intellectual achievement of our time.”
As Durkheim said, in the absence of experimental method comparative method is the only method available to the sociological disciplines. Due to the success attained by employing this method in small-scale studies in particular societies, sociologists are encouraged to make comparisons between societies. Such higher-level comparisons between societies and nations are necessary to verify the conclusions of the small-scale studies.