The Role of Comparison in the Construction and Deconstruction of Boundaries

Year: 2015

Author: Clarke, David

Type of paper: Abstract refereed

This paper addresses comparative research from the perspective of boundary crossing and argues that all research is intrinsically comparative and, as such, continually engages in the useful and productive activity of constructing and reconstructing boundaries. In this paper, international comparative research provides the examples illustrative of the points being made. It is incumbent upon researchers to consider what boundaries they invoke in their comparisons and to examine critically the form of boundary crossing implicit in their particular comparative activity.
Boundaries are variously and implicitly invoked as demarcation markers separating “social worlds” (Trompette & Vinck, 2009), “sites” (Zeiss & Groenewegen, 2009), and “activity systems” (Akkerman & Bakker, 2011), along with other collective constructs. This paper is structured around the possible answers to the question: “How do you cross a boundary?” Every act of boundary crossing can be associated with at least one potential danger, represented in this paper as a caveat. Each can be illustrated with an example from recent research.
One way to cross a boundary is to abolish it.
CAVEAT: the abolition of boundaries can deny the recognition of diversity.
Another way to cross a boundary is to demolish it.
CAVEAT: The demolition of a boundary is specifically contingent on the nature of the empirical warrant. Boundaries are situated constructions of prescribed conceptual tenure.
Yet another way to cross a boundary is to build a bridge.
CAVEAT: Bridges can institutionalize both difference and the defining boundary, differentiating what is being connected.
A fourth way is to find objects to which the boundary is permeable.
CAVEAT: How are these objects transformed in their passage through the ‘permeable’ boundary? Does conservation of function but transformation of form maintain object identity and consequently comparability?
A fifth way to cross a boundary is to federalize the collective of bounded regions into a structured unity.
CAVEAT: Federation is a commendable aspiration provided it does not become colonization. Who speaks for each bounded region?
A sixth way to cross a boundary is to accept responsibility for its construction (and deconstruction).
Acts of comparison have the inevitable outcome of constructing boundaries. Our obligation as researchers is to acknowledge this activity and engage simultaneously in both the construction and the deconstruction of each boundary our acts of comparison create, providing insight into its utility, its fluidity and what I have called its conceptual tenure.