A Method is a useful, helpful and instructive way of accomplishing something with relative ease. While studying a phenomenon, method would similarly point to ways and means of doing things. Or it may be said, that the organisation of ways of application of specific concepts to data is ‘method’. Of course the manner of collection of data itself will have to be worked out.
The concepts which are to be applied or studied will have to be thought out. All this will eventually have to be organised so that the nature of the data and the manner in which it is collected and the application of the concept is done in a way that we are able to study with a degree of precision what we want to study.
In a scientific inquiry much emphasis is placed on precision and exactness of the method. Social sciences, however, owing to the nature of their subject matter, have had to think of methods which come close to the accuracy of scientific experiments in laboratories or other controlled conditions.
A number of scholars, however, do not feel that there should be much preoccupation with the so called ‘scientific research’. Whatever the beliefs of scholars in this regard, there is nonetheless a ‘method’ in thinking, exploring and research in all studies. Several methods, comparative historical, experimental, statistical etc. are used by scholars for their studies. It may be pointed out that all these methods may use comparisons to varying degrees.
The comparative method also uses tools of the historical, experimental and statistical methods. It is also important to bear in mind that comparative method is not the monopoly of comparative politics.
It is used in all domains of knowledge to study physical, human and social phenomenon. Sociology, history, anthropology, psychology etc., use it with similar confidence.
These disciplines have used the comparative method to produce studies which are referred variously as ‘cross-cultural’ (as in anthropology and psychology) and ‘cross-national’ (as in political science and sociology) seeming thereby to emphasize different fields. The comparative method has been seen as studying similarities and differences as the basis for developing a ‘grounded theory’, testing hypotheses, inferring causality, and producing reliable generalizations.
Many social scientists believe that research should be scientifically organized. The comparative method, they believe, offers them the best means to conduct ‘scientific’ research i.e, research characterised by precision, validity, reliability and verifiability and some amount of predictability.
The American political scientist James Coleman, for example, often reminded his students, ‘You can’t be scientific if you’re not comparing’. Swanson similarly emphasized that it was ‘unthinkable’ to think of ‘scientific thought and all scientific research’ without comparisons.
Whereas in physical sciences comparison can be done in laboratories under carefully controlled conditions, precise experimentation in social sciences under conditions which replicate laboratory conditions is not possible.
If, for example, a social scientist wishes to study the relationship between electoral systems and the number of political parties, s/he cannot instruct a government to change its electoral system nor order people to behave in a particular v. ay to test his/ her hypothesis. Nor can s/he replicate a social or political phenomenon in a laboratory where tests can be conducted.
Thus, while a social scientist may feel compelled to work in a scientific way, societal phenomena may not actually permit what is accepted as ‘scientific’ inquiry. S/he can, however, study ‘cases’ i.e., actually existing political systems and compare them i.e., chalk out a way to study their relationship as worked out in the hypothesis, draw conclusions and offer generalizations.
Thus the comparative method, though scientifically weaker than the experimental method, is considered closest to a scientific method, offering the best possible opportunity to seek explanations of social phenomena and offer theoretical propositions and generalizations.
The question you might ask now is what makes comparative method, scientific. Sartori tells us that the ‘control function’ or the system of checks, which is integral to scientific research and a necessary part of laboratory experimentation, can be achieved in social sciences only through comparisons.
He goes further to propose that because the control function can be exercised only through the comparative method, comparisons are indispensable in social sciences. Because of their function of controlling/checking the validity of theoretical propositions, comparisons have the scientific value of making generalized propositions or theoretical statements explaining particular phenomena making predictions, and also what he terms ‘learning from others’ experiences’. In this context it is important to point out that the natures of predictions in comparative method have only a probabilistic causality.
This means that it can state its results only in terms of likelihoods or probabilities i.e., a given set of conditions are likely to give an anticipated outcome. This is different from deterministic causality in scientific research which emphasizes certainty i.e., a given set of conditions will produce the anticipated outcome/result.