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38Historically Speaking November/December 2004 Comparison and History Deborah Cohen and Maura O'Connor Viewed from the long perspective ofEuropean history, studies that cross national boundaries are neither new nor necessarily revolutionary. While historical comparisons may be as ancient as Plutarch's ParallelLives, itwas thephilosophes ofthe European Enlightenment who first set out to distinguish various areas of the world based upon customs, laws, and religions. If the 19th century saw the beginnings ofnational historyto accompanynation -making projects, it also fed an unprecedented boom in comparisons, bolstered by the emerging disciplines of ethnology, anthropology, philology, and law. Even the systematic practice of comparative history , as pioneered by Marc Bloch, Henri Pirenne, and Otto Hintze in the era that followed the GreatWar, can now boast a venerable pedigree. What is new today is the pervasive skepticism aboutnational historyitself. In an era of globalization, we are told, the traditional "national" approach to historyno longer sufby sociologists in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the years in which comparative historical sociologyreached its apogee. Whether the practitioner's aim is the general demonstration of a theory or the illumination of a specific historical context, comparisons have been sorted by genus and phylum down to a dizzyingvariety oftypes. While the now classic typologies developed by Theda Skocpol and Margaret Somers, on the one hand, and . . . what is largely missed in this enthusiastic rush beyond the nation is any sense ofhow to tackle comparative and cross-national work. Charles Tilly, on the other, help to distinguish the ambitions of the historian from those ofthe sociologist, they shed little light on how one should proceed. For all ofthe encomiums to histories that cross national boundaries, practical advice for fices. Critics have registered a number of how to do such histories is in short supply. objections: the claims ofempire are pressing; regions cannot be ignored; and the old exceptionalisms no longer persuade. To take the nation as the focal point, it has been argued, overly restricts the view. Enthroned in most subfields since at least the Second World War, national history, especially ofEurope, seems increasinglyunder siege. To these challenges, historians have sought a solution in the realms of cross-national and comparative work. As conferences advertise for comparative panels and foundations solicit cross-national proposals , the virtues of venturing beyond national history are often extolled. Butwhat is largely missing in this enthuHow to formulate a topic that illuminates both the specific national history and the larger phenomenon, howto address the problem ofsources that may reveal more about a particular country's archival practices than the subject at hand, how to craft arguments that impress specialists without doing violence to the historical context—all have been left to the skill (and luck) of the individual historian. The wheel has been reinvented a number of times, usually in isolation. Only infrequently do cross-national or comparative historians openly discuss the disadvantages and pitfalls ofwhat they do. There are few realistic appraisals of the problems and siastic rush beyond the nation is anysense of costs. Basic questions remain not simply how to tackle comparative and cross-national work. There are, ofcourse, rafts oftheoretical , often hortatory, essays on the subject of comparison. We have classificatory typologies galore, most of them bequeathed to us unanswered, but unasked. What sorts ofstudofthese types ofstudies? Our book, Comparison andHistory: Europe in Cross-National Perspective (Routledge, 2004), brings together scholars who have worked either cross-nationally or comparatively to reflect upon their own research. In chapters that engage practical, methodological , and theoretical questions, the contributors to Comparison and History assess the gains—but also the obstacles and perils—of histories that traverse national boundaries. These are essays to persuade, to criticize, to warn, but above all, to advise. Our aim is to provide a much-needed assessment of these approaches for scholars who are considering embarking upon projects that lead them beyond their national area of expertise. We hope, too, that this book will be ofuse to graduate students whose historical training is likely to range to several national, even continental, fields. We explore two crucial alternatives to standard national monographs: comparative history and cross-national history. Ofthe two genres, comparative historyis seeminglythe more easily defined. Comparative history...


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