On the face of it, Comparative History might seem to have a universalizing function, to highlight features of human experience which seem constant and unchanging over long periods and in very different societies. On closer inspection, however, it is hard not to discern differences between societies even in what might seem to be basic human experiences. Comparison therefore offers a tool for thinking about why societies differ, especially when in many ways they appear similar: differences become the more noticeable against the background of many similarities.
Preparation for this paper is thus more a matter of technique than of new information. In the first instance you should concentrate on deploying your pre-existing knowledge in order to make effective comparisons, although once you have started on a comparison it may, of course, draw you into additional reading as gaps in your knowledge appear. The art of comparison lies in identifying both the bases of similar features in the societies under comparison, and the variable factors which produce differences. Choosing your examples is therefore crucial, and the logic behind this is something that is worth being explicit about in your essays. The societies compared must share certain identified qualities or experiences in order to be a useful basis for comparison.
Choosing examples that are widely disparate from each other in time and space can make it more challenging to find meaningful points of comparison – but equally might produce more unexpected conclusions. The rubric of this section asks you to compare historically distinct societies, separated by either time or space. How far they are separated is up to you and excellent results can be obtained from a close scrutiny of neighbouring societies. However, students who draw on the full range of their papers may find that they arrive at more imaginative conclusions: remember that the assessment criteria specifically reward the ‘effective and appropriate use of historical imagination and curiosity’. As for the number of case studies, there is a balance here to be struck between including enough diversity to allow interesting conclusions to emerge and allowing enough space in order to properly introduce and analyse your cases. Some students find they prefer working with two cases, others with three. Students should also feel free to make remarks indicating a broader frame of reference. Note, however, that the basis of good comparison, as of all historical study is the precise knowledge of particular cases.
Topics covered may include: The Arts: Visual, Drama, Music; Orality & Literacy; Education; Crime; Punishment; The Law; Judicial Systems; Family, Marriage & Household; Gender & Sexuality; Body & Disabilities; Religion: Belief, Conversion, Persecution, Toleration; Ritual, Custom, Myths; Class & Status; Slavery, Serfdom, Underclasses; Globalisation & Development; Markets & Consumerism; Environment, Urbanisation, Town & Country; Identities: National, Ethnic, Geographical; Political Ideas & Ideologies; State-Building: Government, Bureaucracy; Revolutions, Régime Change, Riots; Empires, Centre-periphery; Diplomacy & International Relations; Science, Technology & Medicine; Migration & Diaspora; Ethnic Violence & Genocide.