The Uses of Comparisons: A Critical Review of Approaches to Comparisons in Development Studies


This article discusses different forms of comparisons in development studies and some of the justifications that are used for making them. The main questions I discuss are the following: First, how are comparisons used in development studies? Second, how should comparisons be carried out? I distinguish between two main forms of comparisons. First; there are what I call asymmetrical comparisons, where one compares a case to an exemplar or model. In development studies, this form of comparison usually takes the form of comparing a given phenomenon in the West with instances of the same phenomenon in countries outside the West (the state, the economy, the family structure, etc.). The aim of the comparison is to understand the non-Western case, while the Western case is used as a means to reach such understanding. Second, there are what I call symmetrical comparisons, where the cases compared are given equal treatment, and where the aim of the comparison is to reach a better understanding of all the cases included in the study. The article discusses three different forms of symmetrical comparisons: comparisons-as-quasi-experiments, interpretive comparisons and comparative historical analysis, and concludes that symmetrical comparisons based on comparative historical analysis are the best approach to comparative studies.