Comparative Power

The practice of reconstructing the past, with all its difficulties and incompleteness, is aided by comparative study. Historians, anthropologists, sociologists, and other researchers can learn a great deal about their favored society and culture by looking at others. This paper makes that basic point, but, more significantly, makes a distinction between the effectiveness of drawing meaning from cultural similarity/difference and doing the same from one’s own constructed cultural analogy, while acknowledging both are valuable methods. In other words, it is argued here that the historian who documents similarities and differences between societies stands on firmer methodological ground for drawing conclusions about human cultures than does the historian who is forced to fill in gaps in a given historical record by studying other societies in close geographic and temporal proximity. Also at a disadvantage is the historian working comparatively with gaps in early documentation that are filled in later documentation. This paper is a comparison of comparative methods — an important exercise, because such methods are often wielded due to a dearth of evidence in the archives. The historian should understand the strengths and limitations of various approaches (here reciprocal comparison, historical analogy, and historiographic comparison) to this problem.

To begin, a look at reciprocal comparison and the meaning derived from such an effort, derived specifically from likenesses or distinctions. Historian Robert Darnton found meaning in differences in The Great Cat Massacre: and Other Episodes in French Cultural History. What knowledge, Darnton wondered in his opening chapter, could we gain of eighteenth century French culture by looking at peasant folk tales and contrasting them to versions found in other places in Europe? Whereas similarities might point to shared cultural traits or norms, differences would isolate the particular mentalités of French peasants, how they viewed the world and what occupied their thoughts, in the historical tradition of the Annales School.[1] So while the English version of Tom Thumb was rather “genial,” with helpful fairies, attention to costume, and a titular character engaging in pranks, in the French version the Tom Thumb character, Poucet, was forced to survive in a “harsh, peasant world” against “bandits, wolves, and the village priest by using his wits.”[2] In a tale of a doctor cheating Death, the German version saw Death immediately kill the doctor; with a French twist, the doctor got away with his treachery for some time, becoming prosperous and living to old age — cheating paid off.[3] Indeed, French tales focused heavily on survival in a bleak and brutal world, and on this world’s particularities. Characters with magical wishes asked for food and full bellies, they got rid of children who did not work, put up with cruel step-mothers, and encountered many beggars on the road.[4] Most folk tales mix fictional elements like ogres and magic with socio-economic realities from the place and time they are told, and therefore the above themes reflect the ordinary lives of French peasants: hunger, poverty, the early deaths of biological mothers, begging, and so on.[5] In comparing French versions with those of the Italians, English, and Germans, Darnton noticed unique fixations in French peasant tales and then contrasted these obsessions with the findings of social historians on the material conditions of peasant life, bringing these things together to find meaning, to create a compelling case for what members of the eighteenth century French lower class thought about day to day and their attitudes towards society.

Now, compare Darnton’s work to ethno-historian Helen Rountree’s “Powhatan Indian Women: The People Captain John Smith Barely Saw.” Rountree uses ethnographic analogy, among other tools, to reconstruct the daily lives of Powhatan women in the first years of the seventeenth century. Given that interested English colonizers had limited access to Powhatan women and a “cloudy lens” of patriarchal eurocentrism through which they observed native societies, and given that the Powhatans left few records themselves, Rountree uses the evidence of daily life in nearby Eastern Woodland tribes to describe the likely experiences of Powhatan women.[6] For example: “Powhatan women, like other Woodland Indian women, probably nurse their babies for well over a year after birth, so it would make sense to keep baby and food source together” by bringing infants into the fields with them as the women work.[7] Elsewhere “probably” is dropped for more confident takes: “Powhatan men and women, like those in other Eastern Woodland tribes, would have valued each other as economic partners…”[8] A lack of direct archival knowledge of Powhatan society and sentiments is shored up through archival knowledge of other native peoples living in roughly the same time and region. The meaning Rountree derives from ethnographic analogy, alongside other techniques and evidence, is that the English were wrong, looking through their cloudy lens, to believe Powhatan women suffered drudgery and domination under Powhatan men. Rather, women experienced a great deal of autonomy, as well as fellowship and variety, in their work, and were considered co-equal partners with men in the economic functioning of the village.[9]  

Both Darnton and Rountree admit their methods have challenges where evidence is concerned. Darnton writes that his examination of folktales is “distressingly imprecise in its deployment of evidence,” the evidence is “vague,” because the tales were written down much later — exactly how they were orally transmitted at the relevant time cannot be known.[10] In other words, what if the aspect of a story one marks as characteristic of the French peasant mentalité was not actually in the verbal telling of the tale? It is a threat to the legitimacy of the project. Rountree is careful to use “probably” and “likely” with most of her analogies; the “technique is a valid basis for making inferences if used carefully” (emphasis added), and one must watch out for the imperfections in the records of other tribes.[11] For what if historical understanding of another Eastern Woodland tribe is incorrect, and the falsity is copied over to the narrative of the Powhatan people? Rountree and Darnton acknowledge the limitations of their methods even while firmly believing they are valuable for reconstructing the past. This paper does not dispute that — however, it would be odd if all comparative methods were created equal.

Despite its challenges, reciprocal comparison rests on safer methodological ground, for it at least boasts two actually existing elements to contrast. For instance, Darnton has in his possession folktales from France and from Germany, dug up in the archives, and with them he can notice differences and thus derive meaning about how French peasants viewed the world. Such meaning may be incorrect, but is less likely to be so with support from research on the material conditions of those who might be telling the tales, as mentioned. Rountree, on the other hand, wields a tool that works with but one existing element. Historical, cultural, or ethnographic analogy takes what is known about other peoples and applies it to a specific group suffering from a gap in the historical record. This gap, a lack of direct evidence, is filled with an assumption — which may simply be wrong, without support from other research, like Darnton enjoys, to help out (to have such research would make analogy unnecessary). Obviously, an incorrect assumption threatens to derail derived meaning. If the work of Powhatan women differed in a significant way from other Eastern Woodland tribes, unseen and undiscovered and even silenced by analogy, the case of Powhatan economic equality could weaken. Again, this is not to deny the method’s value, only to note the danger that it carries compared to reciprocal comparison. Paradoxically, the inference that Powhatan society resembled other tribes nearby seems as probable and reasonable as it is bold, risky.

Similarly, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, in Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History, also found meaning with absence when examining whether Henri Christophe, monarch of Haiti after its successful revolution against the French from 1791 to 1804, was influenced by Frederick the Great of Prussia when Christophe named his new Milot palace “San Souci.” Was the palace named after Frederick’s own in Potsdam, or after Colonel San Souci, a revolutionary rival Christophe killed? Trouillot studied the historical record and found that opportunities for early observers to mention a Potsdam-Milot connection were suspiciously ignored.[12] For example, Austro-German geographer Karl Ritter, a contemporary of Christophe, repeatedly described his palace as “European” but failed to mention it was inspired by Frederick’s.[13] British consul Charles Mackenzie, “who visited and described San Souci less than ten years after Christophe’s death, does not connect the two palaces.”[14] Why was a fact that was such a given for later writers not mentioned early on if it was true?[15] These archival gaps of course co-exist with Trouillot’s positive evidence (“Christophe built San Souci, the palace, a few yards away from — if not exactly — where he killed San Souci, the man”[16]), but are used to build a case that Christophe had Colonel San Souci in mind when naming his palace, a detail that evidences an overall erasure of the colonel from history.[17] By contrasting the early historical record with the later one, Trouillot finds truth and silencing.

This historiographic comparison is different from Rountree’s historical analogy. Rountree fills in epistemological gaps about Powhatan women with the traits of nearby, similar cultures; Trouillot judges the gaps in early reports about Haiti’s San Souci palace to suggest later writers were in error and participating in historical silencing (he, like Darnton, is working with two existing elements and weighs the differences). Like Rountree’s, Trouillot’s method is useful and important: the historian should always seek the earliest writings from relevant sources to develop an argument, and if surprising absences exist there is cause to be suspicious that later works created falsities. However, this method too flirts with assumption. It assumes the unwritten is also the unthought, which is not always the case. It may be odd or unlikely that Mackenzie or Ritter would leave Potsdam unmentioned if they believed in its influence, but not impossible or unthinkable. It further assumes a representative sample size — Trouillot is working with very few early documents. Would the discovery of more affect his thesis? As we see with Trouillot and Rountree, and as one might expect, a dearth in the archives forces assumptions.

While Trouillot’s conclusion is probable, he is nevertheless at greater risk of refutation than Darnton or, say, historian Kenneth Pomeranz, who also engaged in reciprocal comparison when he put China beside Europe during the centuries before 1800. Unlike the opening chapter of The Great Cat Massacre, The Great Divergence finds meaning in similarities as well as differences. Pomeranz seeks to understand why Europe experienced an Industrial Revolution instead of China, and must sort through many posited causal factors. For instance, did legal and institutional structures more favorable to capitalist development give Europe an edge, contributing to greater productivity and efficiency?[18] Finding similar regulatory mechanisms like interest rates and property rights, and a larger “world of surprising resemblances” before 1750, Pomeranz argued for other differences: Europe’s access to New World resources and trade, as well as to coal.[19] This indicates that Europe’s industrialization occurred not due to the superior intentions, wisdom, or industriousness of Europeans but rather due to unforeseen, fortunate happenings, or “conjunctures” that “often worked to Western Europe’s advantage, but not necessarily because Europeans created or imposed them.”[20] Reciprocal comparison can thus break down eurocentric perspectives by looking at a broader range of historical evidence. No assumptions need be made (rather, assumptions, such as those about superior industriousness, can be excised). As obvious as it is to write, a wealth of archival evidence, rather than a lack, makes for safer methodological footing, as does working with two existing evidentiary elements, no risky suppositions necessary.

A future paper might muse further on the relationship between analogy and silencing, alluded to earlier — if Trouillot is correct and a fact-based narrative is built on silences, how much more problematic is the narrative based partly on analogy?[21] As for this work, in sum, the historian must use some caution with historical analogy, historiographic comparison, and other tools that have an empty space on one side of the equation. These methods are hugely important and often present theses of high probability. But they are by nature put at risk by archival gaps; reciprocal comparison has more power in its derived meanings and claims about other cultures of the past — by its own archival nature.

For more from the author, subscribe and follow or read his books.

[1] Anna Green and Kathleen Troup, eds., The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, 2nd ed. (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2016), 111.

[2] Robert Darnton, The Great Cat Massacre: And Other Episodes in French Cultural History (New York: Basic Books, 1984), 42.

[3] Ibid, 47-48.

[4] Ibid, 29-38.

[5] Ibid, 23-29.

[6] Helen C. Rountree, “Powhatan Indian Women: The People Captain John Smith Barely Saw,” Ethnohistory 45, no. 1 (winter 1998): 1-2.

[7] Ibid, 4.

[8] Ibid, 21.

[9] Ibid, 22.

[10] Darnton, Cat Massacre, 261.

[11] Rountree, “Powhatan,” 2.

[12] Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (Boston: Beacon Press, 1995), 61-65.

[13] Ibid, 63-64.

[14] Ibid, 62.

[15] Ibid, 64.

[16] Ibid, 65.

[17] Ibid, chapters 1 and 2.

[18] Kenneth Pomeranz, The Great Divergence: China, Europe, and the Making of the Modern World Economy (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), chapters 3 and 4.

[19] Ibid, 29, 279-283.

[20] Ibid, 4.

[21] Trouillot, Silencing, 26-27.