In Defense of the Comparative Method

Robert Alan Segal

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54 Citations (Scopus)


While in some disciplines the comparative method is used unhesitatingly, in others it is spurned. In the field of religious studies, the method has long been rejected, and that rejection far antedates the anti-comparativist stance of postmodernism. This article identifies the main objections commonly lodged against the method and attempts to refute them all - as mischaracterizations either of the method or of the quest for knowledge itself. The article then considers the use of the method by the two figures in religious studies still singled out as the most egregious practitioners of it: James Frazer and William Robertson Smith. In actuality, not even they turn out to be guilty of any of the objections lodged against the method. At the same time they turn out to employ the method in contrary ways. Frazer uses the method to show the similarities among religions; Smith uses it as much to show the differences. The contrasting use of the same method by its most famous practitioners shows that the method is not merely malleable but indispensable to all scholars of religion - those seeking the particularities of individual religions no less than those seeking the universals of religion.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)339-373
Number of pages34
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2001


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