Is comparative history on a sticky wicket?
Although Orlando Patterson and Jason Kaufman's article on cricket didn't strike me as very persuasive I admire their willingness to start painting in broad strokes and look at why cricket didn't become the summer game of North America.
Too much comparative history of the United States looks east to Europe for comparison. I've sometimes thought this reflects an undercurrent of anxiety among historians of America, as if the United States would be demeaned by being compared to piddling little countries like Australia or Canada, or illiberal embarrasments of the colonial era like South Africa, rather than obviously important countries like France or Britain.
For example, the huge volume that is Ira Katznelson and Aristide R. Zolberg, eds. Working-Class Formation: Nineteenth-Century Patterns in Western Europe and the United States. (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1986) largely ignores the comparisons that could be made between the United States and other immigrant societies. It's a fine, fine book but you wonder what additional insights about the dynamics of working class formation went missing when they largely ignored the copious labor historiography of Australia or Canada, for example.
Although the approach has its limitations, I think a good starting point for looking at comparative history is the one first put forth in the 1980s by people like Donald Denoon and John Fogarty: looking at [parts of] North America, Australasia, South America, and South Africa as "regions of recent settlement." The obvious limitation is that the elision writes the indigenes out of the approach. We're talking about "regions of recent European settlement," but the idea is a good one. Typically this approach has looked at regions where the European settlers quickly came to be a substantial proportion of the population, and often a majority.
The strength of this approach is that you can catch 10 countries in your net (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Newfoundland, New Zealand, United States, South Africa, Uraguay); this is also the weakness. Who can do archival research in multiple countries before tenure? In it's totality it's a project for tenured historians, or sociologists who are more comfortable relying on the secondary literature.
Most of these countries, of course, encompassed
relatively sub-national units with varying degrees of autonomy: states, provinces, or separate colonies. Some of these predate the country we now refer to. For example, it sort of supposes federation was inevitable to talk about Australia before 1901 but most people do. This gives more variation in laws and customs, and makes in-depth research more feasible. For example, the North American Midwest and Northwest coast was largely settled in the mid-late 19th century, as were the Australasian colonies. This comparison makes sense, in a way that comparing 17th century New England to 19th century Australia does not.
Another approach, long out of favor, is the "comparative dominions" approach. This took Australia, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa as natural comparators from their status as white dominions. Alexander Brady's 1947 book, Democracy in the Dominions remains insightful today, though readers of modern sensibilities may note that South Africa's course towards apartheid is not exactly prominent. It's mostly about comparative democracy.
This is still valuable -- you can, I think, make the argument that Canada, Australia and New Zealand were more democratic than the United States in the nineteenth century. Arguing over who has more democracy or more egalitarianism is fun for national pride, but unless you have an unambiguous [quantitative] measure of democracy or egalitarianism, it's better to fall back on examining how and why things changed, rather than toting up moral points.
Beginning with the "regions of recent European settlement" approach still strikes me as the way to go. The nation state is recognized, but not reified. Demography, economic conditions and the environment are key explanatory variables and topics of study. Difference and similarity between countries becomes the study of overlapping experiences, rather than stark divides.
It is not just because I am working on a dissertation that I advocate article to dissertation sized research that starts with small sub-national areas as the unit of comparison. It's because a lot of comparative history is still a manifesto for comparative history, and not research itself. Take a look at the Journal of American History's issue on "Beyond the Nation State" from December 1999. The ratio of manifesto to research is still relatively high, although things improved from the 1980 American Historical Review that was 2/3 manifesto and 1/3 actual comparative research (JSTOR stable link to the contents).
I'd love to know why cricket took off in 19th century Melbourne, but baseball took off in Toronto of the same era. Rob McDougall suggests that it was probably marketing. The answer awaits the researcher who wants to delve into the archives in both cities and read back copies of The Age and The Globe. The answer does not lie in essentializing national characteristics about the egalitarian ethos. My agenda for comparative history supposes that sociologists will get their hands dirty on microfilm and newsprint, and that historians view their small scale comparisons of city and region as contributing to a larger cross-national comparative project.
(You may think "great idea! what have you done about it?" It's a fair question -- there are none so idealistic as the un-initiated. I've published two articles that, I think, took the foregoing approach to comparative history.)
[Updated at 2:55pm cdt to correct some of the discussion of states and provinces etc, and add more to the discussion of Brady]Posted by robe0419 at May 5, 2005 10:32 AM | TrackBack