The Problems Of Establishing A Standardised Methodology

1772 words - 7 pages

One of the most logical methods of constructing comparative history is to construct a ‘control sample’, a single example, or set of data to which all other data are contrasted or anchored. This is an attempt by historians to replicate the accuracy of experiments conducted in a lab. Karl Popper challenged the ability of historians to conduct such experiments as similarity could never truly be found in such qualitative variables. Yet, as Wickham points out: “comparison is the closest historians can get to testing, attempting to falsify their own explanations”, suggesting there a deep-rooted belief that comparison is a methodology akin to the sciences. Although there is a risk the study might inadvertently become a narrative, the power of this methodology is great. Rutten provides a simplified model of what scientific methodology consists of: “accept only hypotheses with refutable implications,” and “reject all refuted hypotheses.” Thus, any discipline can become scientific by adopting these standards. Pomeranz, Parthasarathi and Abu-Lughod used comparison to disprove the common hypothesis that East and West divergence was inevitable because of established economic differences. History is a social science and historians are starting to assert it as such; Rutten says himself that “science demands economic historians develop whatever tools are needed to solve the problems they face”, and they have certainly made an admirable effort.
In his Framing the Early Middle Ages, Wickham examines the economic development of the fragments of the Roman Empire, paying particular attention to the ruler maximisation of available resources. He treats Egypt like a control sample for a Braudel-esque geographical survey of the countries to be compared. Although his treatment of Egypt as a control sample may not have been intended, the frequent placement of Egypt at the start of analyses allows for it to be treated as such. This is especially clear in his ‘Managing the Land’ section where he seeks to explain how rulers were able to maximise returns from available resources, which naturally forms a fundamental part of the Western supremacy concept. He makes great use of Egypt’s representation of reasonable consistency when discussing the machinery of government, especially in the collection of taxation. Egypt was agriculturally wealthy, and the Caliphs were interested in increasing agricultural returns by investing in technological advances in irrigation. Consequently, poor harvests were offset by a more constant supply of water for the crops, resulting in the potential for more continuous taxation. Therefore, Egypt represents a logical choice as a control sample if it remained relatively unchanging in areas key to economic development, as well as in the human maximisation of returns. Indeed, he sets other countries like Italy and Africa against this, ultimately demonstrating that “the patterns of development are, up to 800, restricted to the two extremities of our...

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