Is Comparative History Possible?

In recent years the trend toward comparative histories, frequently read in terms of transnational studies, has produced some remarkably exciting work. The prospect of the comparative is gaining broader appeal, a development we should applaud but at the same time begin to examine in a critical fashion. This essay lays out some of the problems involved in comparative work and suggests ways in which we might profitably utilize these potential snares in productive ways. Comparative history has the potential to operate as a “bridge-builder,” encouraging inventive thinking that moves scholars beyond the familiar terrain of their training. In this respect, it encourages original and innovative ways of approaching historical work. But there are lessons to be learned and problems to be faced in managing a complex scholarly enterprise of this kind. Comparative work runs the risk of reproducing and consolidating older models of universalist history that assume universal standards. It further runs the risk of assuming rather than historicizing the idea of the nation as a fixed point of historical reference rather than seeing the nation itself as a site for historical scrutiny. In this paper, my goal is to lay out these problems alongside the palpable rewards of comparative work, and then to suggest how we might turn such problems to our advantage.