Comparison Definition

lilen gomez
Professor in Philosophy

By comparison is understood, in a general way, the operation of putting at least two objects in common, in order to examine their similarities and differences, according to one or more pre-established criteria. For example, if two objects are compared in relation to their size, it can be said that one is larger than the other or that both are equal.

In a broad sense, the comparison consists of a logical mental activity, which we carry out constantly and unconsciously in a multiplicity of situations of daily life. Thus, for example, we compare the sensations that different stimuli produce in us, we contrast flavors, we distinguish cold from heat, etc.; or, we compare between different people or situations. In strict terms, within the scientific field, the comparison is considered a systematic and orderly method, which allows to draw relationships between certain objects of study and draw conclusions from it.

The comparative method

In the Social Sciences, the operation of comparing can be useful as a research method. Starting from general and mostly abstract questions, such as those that ask about institutions, social groups or cultural norms, it is possible to classify the empirical variations of a certain phenomenon to be studied.

To carry out a comparative investigation, it is necessary to define, in the first instance, a time period and a limited space to be analyzed; since, otherwise, the process would become unrealizable due to its own extension. It is necessary to define the cases that will be taken into account to make the comparison (synchronous comparison), or the different moments corresponding to the same case (diachronic comparison). Once the cases have been delimited, in time and space, the variables to be considered for comparison must be outlined. To do this, it is useful to order the cases according to different classes and then extract the more general variables that they share. These function as comparative criteria or hypotheses.

Once the indicated conditions are established, it is feasible to carry out the comparative procedure itself. The comparison can have different objectives: extract a generalization from it, formulate an explanation for a particular phenomenon based on what happened in other cases, associate a process with others, and so on. It should be noted that, depending on the way in which such objectives are stated, the comparison will be less or more successful. That is, the more ambitious the objective, the more difficult it will be to carry out the analysis; for example, if a statistical comparison is made taking into account an excessive amount of data.

Virtues of the comparative method

The comparison in Social Sciences, as a research method, allows finding a key for interpretation, understanding and explanation of a process. In turn, from this, we can build empirically testable explanatory theories. In comparison, when confronting one thing with another, we are able to observe and extract regularities (or distinguish differences), or else, verify if a generalization is true in different cases.

Difficulties and criticisms of the method of comparative analysis

One of the difficulties presented by the comparative method is that, since in all cases it is necessary to propose a cut to compare the different situations, it is inevitable to omit a series of circumstances that could potentially influence the causes or conditions of said situations. The German sociologist Max Weber (1864 – 1920) —considered one of the fathers of modern Sociology— evaluated this as an unavoidable problem of comparative analysis, to the extent that historical situations occur in unique and singular circumstances, in such a way that No law that accounts for a regularity can be extracted from the mere association between them. Unlike Weber, who proposed a case-based study, the French sociologist Émile Durkheim (1858-1917) upheld the study of variables as a method of empirical social research, the objective of which was the formulation of broad generalizations about societies, such as that could be verified experimentally through statistics.



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Panebianco, A. (1994). Comparison and explanation. Comparison in the Social Sciences, 81-104.