Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Comparative method

core definition

The comparative method is nothing more than the process of making comparisons.

explanatory context

The comparative method, so called, is the process of comparing situations, groups, cultures, or whatever, which are similar and yet which differ in known ways.


This sounds vague because it essentially is a vague procedure. There is no set methodic practice involved and comparative analysis of any sort is not so much about codifying or measuring, as about engrossment in the area of study and, through a familiarity with the material, getting a feel for the key features which differ between systems, organisations, structures, historical epochs, or whatever.


Some people would argue, on the contrary, that the aim of the comparative method is to develop, examine and re-formulate hypotheses and to that extent it is a systematic approach.


Marx, Durkheim and Weber all used some form or other of comparative method. This is not to imply, however, that their methodologies can be simply labelled ‘comparative method’. Indeed, Marx, Weber and Durkheim adopted very different approaches to their comparative analyses.


Cross-cultural research in anthropology also employs this method.


Analytic induction in ethnographic research, using constant comparative method is one codified form of the comparative method, although this does not explore differences at a structural level.


Constant comparative method

Constant comparative method is label given to a procedure designed for analysing qualitative data. The process is one of continually comparing segments of the data with each other. Such a process leads to the emergence of categories and helps reveal the relationships between them so that a model of social processes can be developed. However, constant comparative method does not provide a rigorous and systematic test of the model. It is very closely related to analytic induction.

analytical review

Hantrais (1995) commented on comparative research:

The comparative approach to the study of society has a long tradition dating back to Ancient Greece. Since the nineteenth century, philosophers, anthropologists, political scientists and sociologists have used cross-cultural comparisons to achieve various objectives.

For researchers adopting a normative perspective, comparisons have served as a tool for developing classifications of social phenomena and for establishing whether shared phenomena can be explained by the same causes. For many sociologists, comparisons have provided an analytical framework for examining (and explaining) social and cultural differences and specificity. More recently, as greater emphasis has been placed on contextualisation, cross-national comparisons have served increasingly as a means of gaining a better understanding of different societies, their structures and institutions.

The development of this third approach has coincided with the growth in interdisciplinary and international collaboration and networking in the social sciences, which has been encouraged since the 1970s by a number of European-wide initiatives. The European Commission has established several large-scale programmes, and observatories and networks have been set up to monitor and report on social and economic developments in member states. At the same time, government departments and research funding bodies have shown a growing interest in international comparisons, particularly in the social policy area, often as a means of evaluating the solutions adopted for dealing with common problems or to assess the transferability of policies between member states.

Yet, relatively few social scientists feel they are well equipped to conduct studies that seek to cross national boundaries, or to work in international teams. This reluctance may be explained not only by a lack of knowledge or understanding of different cultures and languages but also by insufficient awareness of the research traditions and processes operating in different national contexts.

Princeton University (undated), referring to linguistics states:

In linguistics, the comparative method is a technique for studying the development of languages by performing a feature-by-feature comparison of two or more languages, as opposed to the method of internal reconstruction, which analyzes the internal development of a single language over time.... Ordinarily both methods are used together to reconstruct prehistoric phases of languages, to fill in gaps in the historical record of a language, to discover the development of phonological, morphological, and other linguistic systems, and to confirm or refute hypothesized relationships between languages.

The comparative method was developed over the 19th century. Key contributions were made by the Danish scholars Rasmus Rask and Karl Verner and the German scholar Jacob Grimm....


associated issues


related areas

See also




Hantrais, L., 1995, 'Comparative research method's available at, accessed 2 February 2013, still available 1 June 2019.

Princeton University, undated, 'Comparative method', available at, accessed 2 February 2013, still available 14 December 2016, page 'not found' 1 June 2019.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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