Last semester I taught a class on “Comparative and transnational analysis of contemporary societies” for master’s and doctoral students at the University of Cologne. The aim of the course was to familiarize students with key approaches in comparative-historical social and political analysis, major critiques, and alternative approaches of world society and transnational analysis. We started with the now well-known critique that comparative-historical analysis often falls victim to “methodological nationalism” because it all too frequently assumes society to be bounded by the nation-state. In consequence, comparative-historical analysis often ignores cross-border social relations and horizons of actions, emerging from increasing cross-border flows of people, goods and cultures, transnational and global organizations, networks and communities, as well as transnational institution building.
We started with the sociological classics of whom many considered the comparative method as a key heuristic of social and political analysis. From that we moved on to post-World War II sociological analysis, world systems theory and the world society approach. Empirical illustrations covered issues such as state building, social classes and inequality, migration and diaspora communities, transnational movements, cross-border policy networks and the Europeanisation of welfare institutions.
Interestingly enough, we discovered that even within transnational analysis focusing on networks, diffusion or multi-level interactions, the comparative method does still have an important role to play. Going back to the classics, we found intriguing combinations of comparison and diffusion analysis in Tocqueville’s and Weber’s work. More contemporary critical approaches, such as world systems theory and world society theory, continue to use country comparison as a reference point. This led us to the conclusion that the comparative method is still very valuable but needs to be adapted and combined with other methodological approaches such as network analysis, process tracing or sequence analysis to encompass the transnational and global realities of contemporary societies.
One of the outcomes of this seminar is a series of very interesting book reviews that the students wrote as an assignment for the course. They were asked to choose a book from a list of comparative and transnational studies which by now can be considered as classics. If students chose a comparative study they were asked to discuss whether and how a transnational perspective could have enriched the book. If they chose a global or transnational study they were asked to consider whether and how a comparative dimension was present as well, or how it could have improved the study in question. From what I understand from the students’ feedback, they found it challenging but interesting to engage in reviewing an entire monograph. Myself, I was really impressed by the effort and results of my students. While many of the books they choose have been out on the market for a while, and hence have received several reviews in academic journals already, the students nevertheless often brought a new and fresh perspective in with their reviews.
For this reason, we will publish a number of these reviews over the next weeks. Enjoy reading and rediscovering some of the classics of comparative and transnational analysis.
The Collapse of Soviet Communism in the Light of Transnational and Comparative Analysis. Book Review of Mark R. Beissinger’s Nationalist Mobilization and the Collapse of the Soviet State (Cambridge University Press, 2002), by André Förster.
More to follow.