The purpose of comparative method in social anthropology is to study varieties of form of social life and to understand human social phenomena. Franz Boas delineated two methods in the study of anthropology. First, was to reconstruct the history which means to understand the past and reconstructing theories in present. Second, was comparison of social lives of different people, which would help us to differentiate different cultures, customs and would help us to know historical origin etc. Boas use both the terms anthropology and ethnology simultaneously. Comparative method focuses on the parallels which means similar social features found in different societies in past or present. Comparative method in social anthropology is studied by anthropologists who are also called as arm chair anthropologists as they work mostly in libraries. With the coming up of field work, as a method of research in sociology and social anthropology, comparative method has been neglected on many grounds. Systematic comparison is necessary in the sociological research as without systematic comparison anthropology will become merely as historiography or ethnology. There are a lot of examples of comparative method in history and in legends o Australian and American tribes.


The two problems arose with the comparative methods, first how in a particular society the relation of the human society with natural species is represented. Second problem deals with how the social groups identify themselves with some emblem, or symbol.

EXOGAMOUS MATRILINEAL MOEITY: The tribes of the new south wales are divided into two parts kilpara and makwara, where they follow a rule in which they marry a women outside their division and their children will belong to their mothers division which is known as matrilineal moiety. Rev. John Mathew described the tribes and their divisions by giving two names of that of Eagle hawks and the crows, who were against each others and were divided into two but later came to an agreement that eagle hawks men would marry women of the crows. The parallel would be found in the tribes of haida of the north west America as their animal representation is of eagle and raven similar to eagle hawks and crows. For instance, In America these moieties are referred as pairs of Heaven and Earth, War and Peace, Up stream & Down stream etc

ENDOGAMOUS MOIETIES: There are endogamous moieties found in the Australian tribes as well, where the generation is divided, such as all the persons of one generation lives with their grandparents  ( grand children with grandparents).and similarly, ego’s generation of parents and ego’s generations of  children. These endogamous moieties does not have a specific name but  in most of the Australian tribes they are named after kingfisher and the bee eater, also red bird and black bird.

ANIMAL TALES AND LEGENDS: Animal tales and legends were used to understand tribes and its connotation with human society. These tales help us to understand the differences and resemblances of animal species with regard to human beings and their friendships and antagonism in a society. Similarly, the animal species are in pairs of opposites which again signifies antagonisms which reflect in human societies as well. For instance the tales about Eagle hawk and crow, which were famous in different parts of Australia, and indicate a relationship of conflict.  Eagle hawk was considered as mother’s brother of crow, which simply means that a man marries the daughter of mother’s brother, hence eagle hawk becomes father in law of the crow. Therefore crow is obliged to eagle hawk in terms of food, respect etc. Similarly Black cockatoo and white cockatoo represent another pair of opposites in western Victoria, because of the contrast of colour. The tales and legends are not always birds but there are other animals as well that is, in Australia the moieties are  also distinguish between two different species of  kangaroo and two different species of bees. There is also a different moiety of coyote and wild cat which is seen in California. These tales and stories are often liked by children, which have dramatic expressions. These tales and legends on animals and birds are often similar to and imposed on human societies. These tales and legends serve two purposes first, they interpret and resemble animals divisions  with human societies and second, there is an opposition between the natural species.


The Australian conception of opposition is very  universal and can be applicable in general. For instance, up wards and downwards, weak and strong, black and white and thus, eagle hawks and crows. These are pairs of contraries and pairs of antagonisms. It is applicable to Australian, Melanesian and American tribes as well. The two groups will therefore has some hostility, and sometimes may be regarded as enemies.


Social groups tend to identify themselves with some symbol, emblem, flag, etc. which is called a totem for a particular tribe. There is a difference between two sexes through symbols known as totems ( which denote different tribes). In the tribes of new south Wales the brother is represented as ‘bat’ whereas the sister is represented as the night owl. The totems are also differentiated between males and females, such as bat for men and tree-creeper for women.


The pairs are always in opposition. There are various forms of opposition in comparative method. One such form is Joking relationship. Members of different or opposition groups tend to tease each other, insult, taunt, or may abuse verbally in a joking way. There are various songs sung by the opposition groups in satirical tone to initiate a joking relationship. It is present in various societies with different and opposition groups. For Instance, the coyote people taunt the wild cat people for being lazy just as their symbols of animals are. This joking relationship is  found in variety of the tribes  which facilitate relationships of hostility and antagonisms. There is also a joking relationship between a man of one group and mother of his wife or kin of his wife from another group.


It consists of marriage between the opposite groups. It is considered hostile taking a bride from her native place by the Grooms family which is in the opposite group. As McLennan described as the only way to obtain wife was to capture her from the opposite tribe. A women loses her native group and becomes a member of the other group , one group loses a member(bride or women) in order not to lose that member , they fight and become hostile.  In the Gusii tribes of east Africa, it is said that one marries a women from the opposite group or the hostile group and the saying is as follows “Those whom we marry are those whom we fight.”  There are also few exceptions to the system of marriage exchange, when in a tribe a man receives a women from the moiety, he should also give his sister in return to the opposite tribe, other wise the marriage would be considered illegal and would be nullified on the grounds of not abiding by the rule, this is the case of Yaralde tribe of South Australia and Eastern part of Victoria. It is also known as a process of exchange.

DUAL ORGANISATION: There is also a dual organisation where the food, customs and rituals are exchanged between both the hostile groups. This exchange is known as Potlatch in North American tribes. These kinds of exchange kind of united the two opposite groups under one roof. For instance, yin-yang philosophy of ancient china, which believes in unity with many connotations of examples that is man and woman together hold a unity of married couple. It is also known as the unity of the opposites. The whole universe is based on the order of the unity of the opposites including human society. 

 CONCLUSION: Comparative method is based on the general and in the end we arrive at universal, as most of the characteristics are found in different human societies. The two methods explained by Franz Boas, first the historical which explains the series of stated events and second method is comparative which not explains but makes us understand the society by seeing general social phenomena and relating it to the universal tendency of human societies. Anthropology as a study includes both the methods the historical and the comparative but there should be a drawn dichotomy between the two. Anthropology also studies primitive societies and social anthropology as a branch of comparative studies. The task of social anthropology is to formulate and keep a check on validity of the statements also about the conditions of the social systems which leads to social change, this can only be achieved when there is systematic usage of comparative method. Similarly sociological theory should also be based on proper research ( be it any type of research) and continually tested systematic comparison.


Radcliffe‐Brown, A.R. 1958, Methods in Social Anthropology, Delhi: Asia Publishing
Corporation, Chapter 5 Pp.91‐108


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