Afterword: Spaces of Comparison

Jennifer Robinson


Comparative imaginations are intrinsically spatial – not in the sense that they necessarily deal with different physical spaces as such, although they might, but because the imagined spatiality of their functioning is an important stake in how they can be put to work. Thus, ‘spatial’ questions arise about how different entities can be delimited; how they might be assembled as so many ‘cases’; how these might be imagined to relate to the concepts which both do the work of demarcating entities and which emerge from the comparative encounters. Moreover, the geographical reach of concepts is of issue, including how they might be put to work beyond the specific cases considered. Classically, for a comparative method, specific cases, whether territorially defined or not, are brought into some kind of relationship through shared conceptualisations of phenomena – to select from the papers in this collection this might be a social characteristic, such as a ‘profession’ like biohacking, or an action like networking amongst patient groups, or an object like building characteristics. They might also be brought together through an understanding of shared processes which work out differently in each case (like neoliberalised audits of health and academia, or care for the elderly in more or less privatised situations), or which empirically tie together specific cases (as with the networks amongst patient groups, or architects, or design principles common to different elements of the built environment).1

However cases are defined, any conceptualisation involves a reduction (or an abbreviation, to follow Lefebvre 2009) of the fullness of empirical reality. This is a somewhat pragmatic observation (a concept per thing would be a clumsy intellectual world), but also is productive of building shared understandings. We can think about this spatially, too, indexing a range of issues surrounding how we understand the relationship between concepts and cases, including seeing cases as singularities, specificities, concrete totalities, or involving various kinds of abstraction (concrete abstraction, universalisation, generalisation, concepts). Comparative imaginations thus involve thinking across difference, with a number of cases necessarily differently located in relation to each other and also potentially differently placed in relation to both wider processes and concepts. Moreover, there is a clear spatiality involved in thinking about what the entity of comparison might be, how it might be traced, defined, or bounded – the territorialisations, figurative or physical, that allow a phenomenon or entity to emerge for comparative reflection. We could also be drawn to consider the spatiality of the form of comparison itself: that is, to reflect on the ways in which ideas and insights might be explored through engagement across a number of specific instances. And also to consider the spatiality of comparison’s analytical ‘results’: how these insights might turn out to indicate a poor fit with encounters with other related instances, or might be able to travel productively far beyond the instances or sites of their invention, or even to apply everywhere.

The essays in this collection expand our understanding of the spatialities of conceptualisation, differentiation, and territorialisation entrained in contemporary comparative imaginations. But – and this is to some extent to follow the invitation issued by Deville et al. to read both with and against the grain of the science studies approaches prevalent in the essays – they also invite us to revisit the spatiality of the comparative imagination itself, and to interrogate the processes of conceptualisation emergent in comparative practices, both those comparisons ‘found’ in the world and those invented in the service of academic practice.

The spatialities of comparisons thus embrace some core methodological conundrums in the social sciences, including how to manage the differentiation of phenomena resulting from diverse contexts; how to fold concerns with specificity and singularity into wider narratives and explanations; the geographical reach of insights and concepts (universalism, more limited generalisations, or simply the usefulness of concepts generated in one situation for others); the connections across space which implicate different social outcomes in a shared genesis; and not least in relation to this book, the material and imaginative alliances of people, objects, techniques, and practices implicated in the production of specific comparative practices (academic or not). This last one is important for this book as most authors share the critical insights of a post-representational (irreductionist) science and technology studies approach, and place comparison as one facet of emergent practices. This is a very generative way to approach comparison. It draws us to see comparability across different cases as an achievement of complex formations of objects, practitioners, and scholars – focusing on what is actually done and assembled through comparative practice – rather than a formal procedure which can be specified in advance as method. This proves to be a very productive way forward to address the now well-rehearsed critiques of the scientific approach to comparisons which provides a recipe for proceeding with the ‘natural experiments’ that comparisons can work with (for example Lijphardt 1971).

Thus, classically, comparison attempts to identify shared variables across ‘cases’ and to use these to assess the relative importance of different processes or phenomena in explaining differentiated outcomes. This has supported many concerns and debates about defining commensurable variables across different cases, assumptions of causality amongst ‘variables’, and how to demarcate a ‘case’. And this is in addition to the endemic problems in social science research with small-N comparisons, endogeneity of variables (cases are interconnected) and multicausality (how to isolate the effect of different variables – see Lijphardt 1971 and Franzese 2007 for some discussion of these). Reaching into a different idiom of comparative practice, Monika Krause (this volume) focuses in on the ‘case’ and its conventionalisation within the framework of clinical trials which set different groups into a competition to ascertain which ‘works’, or wins. Comparison, she suggests, becomes like the ‘race track’ – the conditions which are set in place to be able to draw some analytical conclusions. This emphasis on the ways in which scientists or observers create the conditions for the ‘event’ (the experiment) emerges out of the Science and Technology studies tradition. For example, Isabelle Stengers insists that the achievement of ‘rapport’ across different entities is singular, and ‘has the character of an “event” rather than of a methodological enterprise’ (2011:49–50). Staging the ‘race’ and inventing the ‘race-track’ in the clinical trial, then, would be exemplary of this. However, we cannot rush too quickly to displace the concern with method, or with what the ‘scientist’ considers to be a fair or good practice. As Stengers continues, there might be a desire to ascribe objectivity to ‘experiments’ which are thought to be produced naturally. For example, social comparativists are often reliant on the emergence in the world of variation which they can think with: experiments prepared by the ubiquity of differentiation in social outcomes. However, Stengers is also stringent in bringing the figure of the scientist back in to the production and use of these events. As she reminds readers, it is the ‘possibility of a collective game to bind colleagues’ (2011: 54), or a common concern, which establishes the analytical potential of the methodological event, and its scientific meaning.


One way to take forward an interrogation and possible re-invention of comparative method, then, is to consider what scientists actually do in the name of comparison. So rather than rely on the quaint scientistic narratives which are retold in the interests of securing methodological certainty, or complicity, we might ask how meaning or method is part of the ‘event’ of producing commensurability. How in practice do comparativists authorise the narratives and findings which circulate in the name of that event? In urban studies, for example, I found that the work of forging comparability through trying to isolate variation in small-N samples led to the selection of relatively similar cities for comparison (so, in theory, fewer variables would be diverging across the cases). This seriously restricted the range of cities drawn on to inform wider interpretations of urban processes, as only most similar cities could be selected for comparison. But by following the actual practices of urban comparativists, it became clear that in fact what they found most productive for thinking with was the inevitable variety of outcomes to be found across different urban phenomena which, like most contexts or cases (territorially defined or not), are characterised by a rich and inexhaustible multiplicity of processes (Clark 1995; Kantor and Savitch 2005). The enormous restrictions associated with conventions requiring that most similar contexts be selected for comparison could easily be reconfigured to work with much more loosely defined ‘shared features’ (Robinson 2015).

The value of bringing into view the practices of making comparability has even more wide-ranging consequences in the analysis offered by Joe Deville, Michael Guggenheim, and Zuzana Hrdličková in this volume. For them, the comparator, the agency creating the ‘event’ of comparison, is ‘an assemblage that undertakes comparative work’, including the individuals, technologies, institutions, settings, and comparative practices of others. An open, often asymmetric and exploratory process of assembling the comparator emerges, as the authors ‘bounce around’ their cases, ‘feeding the comparator’. Thus what comparativists and their socio-technical allies actually do matters – they make the comparator, they produce (in)commensurability, they compose the events to think with. Thus the spatialities of comparison – the definitions of the entities compared, the grounds for comparison, the potential for emergent conceptualisations – are not given in methods, or able to be defined a priori, but are generated in the practices of working across different cases.

As we follow the other authors in this book through their particular comparative experiments, the different elements of this comparator (science-fiction-like in its rumbling multiplicity, ubiquitous presence, its often ill-formation, unpredictability, and attendant emergent disturbances), are exposed and interrogated. The power relations and historicities of a number of the elements and events contributing to the monstrous ‘rapport’ (Stengers 2011) being generated across entities and observations, across time and space, are teased out through reflections on a range of projects in which comparative experiments were important, or required by some or other element.

We read in a few of the papers in this book, including in the Deville et al. piece, of how supranational research institutions have been fabricating comparisons in their own image, requiring submissions for financial support to map onto the national imagination. Both the human agents of research and the empirical processes on which they are reflecting have been drawn in to the comparator in this way, pre-formed and at times highly ill-formed for the imagined task and shared conventions of the researchers. It could be we can read such examples of institutionally inventive framing of the comparator (Deville et al.; Akrich and Rabeharisoa; Stöckelová) as generative, giving rise to some happy accidents and opening up opportunities which were not there. Certainly, the questions which this process poses for European research practice are energising. Tereza Stöckelová reflects on her experiences of cross-national research projects funded by the EU and the Czech Republic as operating within the terms of the ‘enactment […] of the performative effects of the Eurobarometers’, reinforcing the ‘nation’ as the point of reference, including in the institutional processes for navigating internal conflicts within the research team. Different national research styles caused disagreement about whether specific quantitative elements of a survey were essential and whether effective comparative insights seem to obstruct or even undermine the conventions of different researchers. But these sticking points are also generative. They recast the comparative exercise in a much looser form, suggesting an approach whereby different cases are simply useful for posing questions, interrogating categories, fine-tuning descriptions, and refining or disrupting concepts – all of which are some of the uses of comparative thinking which Krause so helpfully outlines. And they dislocate the nationally orchestrated conventions of research practice, perhaps raising questions about nationally dominant methods, whether these are quantitative or ethnographic. These might make for fractious meetings of project researchers, but the opportunity to stage and work through some of the deep tensions embedded in (always hierarchical and power-laden) research contexts by reference to external sources of authority may be welcomed by different constituencies within national research environments where, for example, strict quantitative research protocols might be undermining critical researchers.

However, this also brings into the frame the globalised power relations of knowledge production, which Stöckelová (this volume) exposes through her discussion of the Anglocentric review processes shaping publication in ‘international’ English language outlets (Akrich and Rabeharisoa also discuss how the conventions of an outdated scientific comparative practice weigh heavily on efforts to publish research). This skews the reference points within the national-performative research teams, and limits the counter-hegemonic potential of such collaborative projects. The bureaucratic-national-performative comparisons fostered by the EU and by national research funders may have some potential to bring different research practices into a productive confrontation, challenging hegemonic research cultures. But this seems to be vastly outweighed by the outdated territorial imagination which bears down on the need to reinvent comparative imaginations to match the much messier and diverse spatialities of phenomena being researched.

Here the thoughtful paper by Madeleine Akrich and Vololona Rabeharisoa is helpful, as they explain how in their EU-funded project they moved from the institutionally over-determined expectation that national context would both matter and explain the variations they might observe, to building a comparative imagination resonant with the transnational interconnections amongst the case studies, mutually shaped by shared circuits of knowledge. Abandoning the national framework, then, the teams worked together to generate common questions for approaching the different territorially distended cases (see Peck and Theodore 2012). ‘Making comparators’ (in a retrospective application of Deville et al.’s useful analytic), they also arrived at a position where each case was treated ‘in its singularity’. Thus most helpfully for assessing the spatialities of the comparative imagination, they explain that bringing the different cases together in their shared analytical discussions ‘did not consist of extracting a few dimensions out of the singularity of each case, but rather thickening its singularity in light of the other cases’ (Akrich and Rabeharisoa, this volume).

Thus, rather than seeking ‘abstraction’ or hoping to raise observations to ‘generalisations’, they imagine a quite different spatiality to the comparative imagination – one in the service of singularisation – to understand each case better. They also highlight the potential diversity of geographies of cases themselves, seeking to think more fully about the ‘common practices’ of the different territorially extended patient and activist networks which they were analysing.

This example of comparison thus brings out two key spatialities at stake in rethinking how comparative imaginations might be practically put to work in contemporary social analysis. On the one hand, we are confronted with the meaning of the case – what its status is in relation to 1) other cases, and 2) the concepts and theoretical insights which inform analysis of the topic. On the other hand, we are confronted with the poverty of predetermined territorialisations as the basis for comparative reflection. National entities are not necessarily the relevant spatial ‘container’ for comparisons; once the constraints of the national-scale comparison imposed by the funding institutions had been sidestepped, the networks and their transnational interactions provided a distinct starting point for reflection. This is a salient reminder that determining the comparative entity is always both conceptually and empirically contextual: there is no pre-given spatiality to entities. Supposedly territorial entities for comparison (such as nations, cities, neighbourhoods), have no a priori salience. These are always socio-spatial configurations, such as ‘local administrations’, or ‘transnational networks’: cities as such, or national territories as such, are not often useful bases for comparison. But the extraordinary social complexity and multiplicity which we so readily associate with such territorially defined entities is also a relevant concern even for tightly targeted conceptual entities: a professional biohacker, for example, has a fundamental indeterminacy, a concrete multiplicity, as evident in the variety of relevant comparators which open out from this practice (Meyer, this volume).

Alice Santiago Faria’s neat essay on how she came to think across two buildings, in different contexts and time periods, is instructive in considering the spatiality and nature of the entities which might be drawn on to develop comparative insights. Her architectural practice grabs our attention with a number of comparative moves in the history of that field: the seemingly ahistorical architectural conventions from the nineteenth century which compare purely the forms of similar buildings in different contexts; or those conventions which, perhaps strangely to the sociological imagination, lift the elements of buildings out of their structural and contextual setting to compare bits and pieces, like walls, roofs, openings; the formalist twentieth-century art critique driven by categories; and, taking a cue from Giedion, a major thinker of the modernist period in architecture, the possibility to displace the contextualist and historicist analysis which ties buildings to places and times emerges through the analytical importance of attending to the interweaving of places and times to forge a critical historical understanding of architecture. Resonating with Walter Benjamin’s analytical ‘constellations’, referencing the multiplicity of possible historical analyses emergent in the present, but stretching across different times and places to generate the resources to understand the ‘now’ (Benjamin 1999; Robinson 2013), Giedion provides an inspiration for Faria to think across two quite different buildings, a train station in British colonial Bombay and a cathedral in Portuguese colonial Goa. Her final comparison is quite historically inflected but finds inspiration in the range of comparative traditions in architecture to bring the two buildings into comparison through understanding their design, architects, function, and form. What started out for her as an impossible comparison yielded rich insights across the two cases.

This bears some similarity to the ‘tinkered’ comparison of Peter Lutz, who finds himself approaching his two divergent case studies through the sceptical lens of scholars pronouncing the impossibility of comparing US and Swedish health care systems, but finds inspiration in the idea of the ‘mediating passages’ of his own back and forth across the two contexts (as well as some empirical connections between the two cases) and suggests that what is at stake is whether these journeys ‘produce […] noteworthy scientific knowledge towards some purpose’. This may seem a modest ambition, but I want to dwell on this for the remainder of this short commentary as this strikes me as an important determinant of the point of undertaking comparative experiments. We can reconnect with Isabelle Stengers’ insistence that scientific insights rely on the practices, conventions, and expectations of the community of scholars generating them.


It is an exciting feature of this collection that the researcher and his/her methodological conventions are displaced from attention in favour of the dynamic productivity of the field of comparative practice in which s/he is implicated and embedded. The last papers from this book which I want to talk about put this decentring to work in the service of rethinking the comparative method itself. Together they realise some excellent insights by taking as their starting point actually existing comparisons: comparisons that are made not by scholars in the interests of generating analytical or conceptual insights, or deepening their understanding of a situation, but ‘found’ comparisons, in the field. Morgan Meyer explores the comparisons made in public and specialist debates concerning the identity and social meaning of ‘biohackers’, and Christopher Gad and Casper Bruun Jensen are concerned with the ‘indigenous’ comparisons being made on the bridge of a Danish fishery inspection vessel. Each paper finds fascinating ways to think productively with these comparisons, informing their own academic analyses. And both comment on the open-ended nature of the interaction amongst their own comparative reflections and those they encountered in the field. This too is a product of the rich STS insights which place researchers in the ‘midst of things’, part of emergent practices, as Gad and Jensen observe, defying any clear distinctions, then, between description and conceptualisation, informant and researcher, human and technology. ‘Tracing comparisons ethnographically’, or tracing the empirically existing lateral connections between cases, opens up cases to perhaps unpredictable sources of reflection and insight (they cite the interesting work of Maurer (2005), linking Islamic banking and alternative currencies). They suggest a ‘dynamic interplay between our intellectual preoccupations and what we encountered on the West Coast’. Thus, numerous comparisons in practice draw analysts to proliferate insights, to pursue lateral connections. In their view, there is no need then to specify ‘a new comparative agenda tout court’; this, they suggest, is delimiting and uninteresting.

However, I return here to Stenger’s figure of the intellectual community of practice, generating, debating, and contesting what makes for valid knowledge or results, and I would like to stretch this point as a possible counterweight to this last claim from Gad and Jensen and suggest rather that that we do need to reflect more thoroughly on the specific generativity of comparative imaginations and tactics for academic analysis. Deville et al. in the Introduction to this volume direct us to the need for a critical reflection on these ‘found’ comparisons. The point would be that critical reflections on found comparisons, and the assumptions which underpin them, might or might not reveal them to be useful. For it is the case that found comparisons both generate comparability and profoundly close it off. There are political questions, too. Why should any particular comparative practice or insight be one which receives attention and encouragement from those agendas and concerns which inform scholarly debate? And, perhaps more directly, how exactly can ‘lateral comparisons’ which draw cases together because they are part of the same field of practice and suggest some scholarly potential in thinking them together, be generative of insights? What might be some possible dissonances or contradictions here with the projects of critical and scholarly research?

In urban studies, on the one hand, it is clear that as cities are profoundly transnationally interconnected they offer great opportunities to generate comparative analyses through the astonishing array of practical and emergent comparisons and connections amongst cities which are characteristic of global urban policy, design, investment, and many other fields of urban practice. However, in terms of using ‘found comparisons’, Nick Clarke (2012), for example, observes the deep political power relations which frame various actually existing transnational comparisons. He observes that ‘northern’ practitioners in transnational north-south policy networks were very dismissive of the possibility of learning from ‘southern’ cities, or those outside their region. This comparison in practice, then, draws on and reinforces the very spatial imagination which critical urban studies feels the need to contest. Many transnational knowledge networks generating practical comparisons insert geopolitical power relations in the place of useful analytical constellations (whether these are enacted across the EU, the G8, or the growing BRICS networks, for example), and others generally create politically powerful effects – the example of ranking and competitive comparisons in practice outlined by Sarah de Rijcke et al. in this volume is pertinent here. In urban studies, where the postcolonial imperative to enrich wider conceptualisations of the urban through insights drawn from the experiences of any city, found comparisons can be very disabling insofar as they authorise established conventions normatively valuing some cities over others. Of course we have the potential to identify these power relations and then use analytical resources to identify them at work within scholarly discussions, and elaborate our critiques accordingly. And it is certainly possible to trace an alternative, more generous account of the prolific policy interconnections across many different geopolitical divisions which can frame a dynamic reconfiguration of the conceptual landscape of the urban (McCann and Ward 2011; Robinson 2011; Roy and Ong 2011). But there is no reason why found comparisons will be interesting or generative for any particular intellectual or political project.

More generally, while appreciating the generative potential of building understandings of comparison by attending to comparative practices, I suspect there is an important continuing place for more epistemological or critical reflections. The insightful results reported from irreductionist approaches which place scholarly enquiry in the midst of practices-researchers-things-technologies might be complemented by equally productive possibilities in the critical conversations which scholars can have about what kinds of comparative imaginations and tactics might be put to work productively, as method and procedure, to address the conundrums of our intellectual and practical labours today. Thus, with Krause (this volume), I would want to ask more directly what use comparative reflections could have for building the insights which scholars might wish to debate, contest, and validate? And I would also like to probe the specific challenges of building conceptualisations across difference. An inflection point for me in this is Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition, which is an extraordinary statement about the potential for thinking with ‘difference’ to aid our understanding of processes of conceptualisation – and comparison. George Steinmetz (2004) cites Peter Osborne as noting that ‘strictly speaking the incomparable is the unthinkable’ (p. 390). The question Deleuze poses is ‘how do we come to know something? How do the phenomena we encounter come to be known and understood by us’? Far from being a call to abdicate from the processes of concept formation (Grossberg 2014), Deleuze brings the resources of Western philosophy to reformulate how this can be thought in a post-Kantian, post-representational world. In my reading, he offers quite some inspiration for a reconfigured comparativist imagination (Robinson 2016).

Thus, to encourage a more geographically wide-ranging inspiration for the analysis of the urban it has been very helpful to mobilise a comparative imagination but also essential to directly address and seek to reconfigure the core assumptions of the form of comparative imagination we have inherited in this field (Robinson 2011; 2014). Here is where I find much common ground with the motivations for a tactical shift to focus on comparative practices which have been put forward by authors in the current volume. Specifically, I feel it is necessary to move beyond the common architecture of explanation which opposes wider systemic processes with their contextualised and hybridised outcomes. Even in its postcolonial idiom (for example, Chakrabarty’s (2000) ideas of Capital 1 and Capital 2) this imagination, which preserves the idea that processes (such as global capitalism) derived in analysis can be identified locally in a hybrid, differentiated form, generates a view of many places as residual to theorisation, marking only the hybridisation of processes derived (and already conceptualised) from elsewhere. This both retains the centrality of conceptualisations informed by only some contexts, and reduces the study of different places to a form of ‘defanged empiricism’, unable to transform understandings of these wider processes and leaving conceptualisations relatively intact (see Chaudhary 2012; Connell 2007). Providing a foundation for a comparative imagination which would feel free to draw on any city in elaborating the conceptualisation of urbanisation would benefit from reimagining this relationship between cases and concepts.

Thus the key comparative ambition to explain outcomes can benefit from reframing the meaning of the ‘case’ in comparative analysis as not simply an example (perhaps hybridised) of apparently wider overarching processes (Jacobs 2012), but as specific outcomes (singularities) which open opportunities to conceptualise the manifold dynamics constituting the urban. In this framing, both Walter Benjamin in his emphasis on the infinity of possible interpretations of any given moment in history – constellations of the ‘now’ (Robinson 2013) – and Deleuze can inspire us to rethink the spatiality of comparison. In a Deleuzian idiom, we might consider that the urban manifold in its many expressions ‘makes itself known to us’, as AbdouMaliq Simone (2011) puts it. This generates new problems for us to reflect on, prompting processes of conceptualisation. In the case of thinking cities (in a world of cities), we are very quickly drawn to bring the experiences and conceptualisations of experiences in other cities to bear on any specific problem we are confronted with. Whether tracing the shared connections that are associated with the empirical emergence of different urban outcomes, or composing analytical proximities across different cases in the idiom of thinking with elsewhere, conceptualisation of any given urban outcome is placed in relation to the wider urban world. In this imagination, which is not to prejudice the specific methodologies for exploration, conceptualisation is a dynamic and generative process, shaped as much by the rumbling intensities of the material world as by our fragile and often incoherent efforts to understand, subject to rules of experimentation and revisability, embedded in wider conversations, but with the potential to start conceptualisation anywhere, with any singularity (Deleuze and Guattari 1994).

Much is at stake for urbanists in reconfiguring the comparative imagination. Not only is there an urgent need to enable any urban outcome or process to inform theorisation, but such a postcolonial move also requires both new spatialities of method and new cultures of practice. Thus, the politics of how comparative imaginations are imagined and practised can be intense. In the face of calls for new theories and new subjects of theorisation for a globalised and postcolonial urban world, some thinkers seek to close down experimentation, reassert the parochial universals of extant theorisation, and dismiss new initiatives without due critical engagement. Even more troubling, the very uneven institutional organisation of global knowledge means that scholars are very differentially resourced in the emerging conversations about urban experiences, making their transformation precarious. A vital and urgent consequence of any comparative imagination, then, is that the mode and style of urban theorisation itself is transformed from an authoritative universalising voice emanating from some putative centre of urban scholarship to a celebration of the conversations opened up amongst the many subjects of urban theoretical endeavour in cities around the world, valorising more provisional, modest, and revisable claims about the nature of the urban. In my own practice, the spatialities of conceptualisation and comparison require direct and ardent contestation and reconstruction. This volume makes an outstanding contribution to that project, and will journey with me, and I hope many others, through their comparative experimentations.


1 This paragraph and the following ones draw on Robinson (2014, pp. 66–68).


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