This is the second of two posts on how we are forever enmeshed in relationships, in all aspects of our lives, that continually (re)shape, (re)produce, and (re)envision how we practise our craft. The first discussed the important role played by my students across the 2010s in educating me about a topic which I was apparently the ‘expert’ on. This post focuses on the implications for my own writings on these themes, and especially the question of what it means to compare; although it is hoped that, completing the pedagogical loop established in the first post, the article I discuss below is of interest to students as well as academic researchers.
At its core, my article makes the case for understanding comparison as something we do all of the time, over and over, and thus as an intrinsically political research practice. It does so via a discussion of two highly influential bodies of work. Firstly, the Comparative Capitalisms (CC) literatures, which in the article’s survey stretch chronologically from the narrow and reductive Varieties of Capitalism framework through broader and more encompassing (yet still limited) scholarship and finally to the recent consolidation of this approach around the ‘growth model’ perspective. The common denominator across these literatures remains as it was when I wrote a decade ago (p.483): ‘the basis for different “types”, “models” or “varieties” of capitalism are nationally specific institutions. They play a critical role in the evolution of national capitalisms, too, be it successful adjustment to new economic realities or failure to adapt through inertia’.
Secondly, the critical-geographical literatures on variegated capitalism. These offer a compelling critique of the CC literatures, arguing that questions of variety and unevenness necessitate a considerably more holistic methodological approach to comparison than a singular ‘national state as container’ focus would allow for. These commentaries have frequently been instructive, liberating research on comparing capitalisms from the analytical and methodological limitations immanent to CC scholarship. This is evident in the visibility in these interventions of, for instance, disruptive processes of neoliberalisation at a range of scales rather than merely institutional continuities and changes at the national scale. Yet the contributions largely remain inside the CC universe, operating creatively within rather than breaking free of it – one example being the tendency to study and compare ‘cases’ in institutional terms, albeit more holistically than is possible in CC scholarship. The question, then, is how to move decisively towards a more autonomous position, as encouraged by the exchanges with students that were covered in my previous post?
My argument is that these two approaches say too little about what is at stake politically when comparing capitalisms – for the CC literatures, the overwhelming focus is on the analytics of comparison, whereas for critical geographers the politics of comparison is acknowledged but as a factor of secondary importance. In contrast, my article makes the case for (i) being explicit about what is analytically and politically at stake in the act of comparing, and (ii) putting analytical and political concerns on an equal footing. But how do I go about this? Here it is necessary to showcase briefly the work of three scholars whose endeavours I have come across at different points over the last 15 years.
Reecia Orzeck’s 2007 article on historical materialism and the body remains one of the most important contributions I have ever read: much like other ‘lightning bolt’ pieces, such as Stuart Hall’s classic ‘Marxism without Guarantees’ essay, this really was a case of ‘before’ and ‘after’. Nothing has been the same for me since. And what I have learned when reading Orzeck’s subsequent publications – for example, on the inherently political nature of all research, or on geographical imaginaries – is that a paper which initially seems quite distant from your own area of work can actually, by way of the approach it takes, be of great significance nevertheless. Indeed, I have learned much over the years from Orzeck’s precise and exquisitely rendered modes of argumentation and enquiry, as shown particularly well in this recent article on the legal geography field.
Heloise Weber’s critique of the formal comparative method was also published in 2007, but it had a slower-burning impact. From first reading it in the early 2010s, I always knew it was of real importance, and this feeling grew over the years, but it was often difficult to see what I could do myself in my own work. Then, a few years after I had started recommending it informally to students, an outstanding student in 2016 made use of the article for both her presentation and essay for the module discussed in my first post, and Weber’s arguments helped elevate these assignments to great effect. This enabled me slowly to piece together what could potentially be done, principally through reading Weber’s argument about comparison into some of her other work, such as on territoriality and development plus on the limitations of historical analyses which eschew the substantive sources of social and political change – the sources often being the social and political struggles that are endemic to all societies.
However, this process was still incomplete when, at the start of 2020, via a reference towards the end of a brilliant final chapter by Julie Cupples in a volume on urban marginality, I came across the work of Juliet Hooker. Hooker’s remarks on hemispheric juxtaposition, an alternative she offers to the comparative method, is outlined in a fascinating book on theorising race in the Americas and later supplemented through a thought-provoking symposium on the same book and more recent contributions on white grievance in the USA. Hooker proposes juxtaposition as an approach to comparison that places disparate objects side-by-side, enabling us to view them simultaneously. This viewing transforms our understanding of each object by revealing relations that would not be apparent if they were staged separately or sequentially in our research design and/or analysis. By focusing on resonances and discontinuities, rather than similarities and differences, Hooker seeks to overcome the illusions of coherence and ‘set apart’ essences to the ‘cases’ we consider.
Building on the compelling arguments of these three scholars on politics, formalism and juxtaposition, the final section of my article argues that a broadly conceived critical political economy approach is best-placed to make the most of the potential of an understanding of comparison that gives parity to analytics and politics. This makes it possible to deploy research strategies that juxtapose different constellations of crises, conflicts and contradictions in order to articulate critiques of capitalism and/or focus on social and political struggles taking place in, against and potentially beyond the ‘cases’ being considered.
Further, it enables us to acknowledge that the ‘cases’ being considered are always in the process of (re)constitution and thus never ‘finished’ or ‘complete’: empirical developments and/or the arguments of other researchers could lead us, over time, to emphasise different, or bring forth new, resonances and discontinuities in and across the ‘cases’ we study. This also means that, if the ‘cases’ within it are never complete, capitalism always contains the possibilities and the practices of transformation. Ultimately, this entails a normative orientation in a critical political economy approach towards a range of post-capitalist possibilities, in contrast to the social democratic impulses underpinning CC research and the even-handed explorations of alternatives within and beyond capitalism in critical-geographical scholarship.
This is not about creating a ‘template’ conception of critical political economy to go up against the CC and critical-geographical approaches: accordingly, I seek to build my arguments about comparison as intrinsically political research practice into the case for critical political economy. This is done in two ways: firstly, I suggest four texts in addition to one each by Hooker and Weber. These texts all represent different possibilities for critical political economy with regard to the politics of comparison. Secondly, I make it clear that my suggestions are my political choices: these selections are not pre-ordained, and it should be expected that other researchers could come up with a different set. I then cite four more texts that would also fit the bill, quoting Hooker’s points about textual juxtapositions in the process.
I argue in the conclusion that the power of Hooker’s and Weber’s arguments is that they help us reflect on how we could step away from the comparative universes developed by others, creating our own epistemological and methodological ecology and associated vernaculars in the process. This, in turn, leads us to more inventive and more effective understandings of comparison, utilising Orzeck’s insights to promote an open-ended, creative honesty about the role of the researcher in the (re)production of the acts of comparison. There are implications beyond the scope of the article, too: returning to how I began my first post, it enables us to be more open, creative and honest about the sources of inspiration for our research endeavours. Pedagogical relationships are all around us, inside and outside the seminar room, (re)shaping, (re)producing, and (re)envisioning how we practise our craft. All I have discussed here is how I sought to distil these relationships, breaking them down into something that made sense to me; I look forward to learning more about how others do it, be it my students or academic colleagues.
Image: Melting sea ice, Arctic, David Goldman, AP