What is a comparative essay?
A comparative essay asks that you compare at least two (possibly more) items. These items will differ depending on the assignment. You might be asked to compare
- positions on an issue (e.g., responses to midwifery in Canada and the United States)
- theories (e.g., capitalism and communism)
- figures (e.g., GDP in the United States and Britain)
- texts (e.g., Shakespeare’s Hamletand Macbeth)
- events (e.g., the Great Depression and the global financial crisis of 2008–9)
Although the assignment may say “compare,” the assumption is that you will consider both the similarities and differences; in other words, you will compare and contrast.
Make sure you know the basis for comparison
The assignment sheet may say exactly what you need to compare, or it may ask you to come up with a basis for comparison yourself.
- Provided by the essay question: The essay question may ask that you consider the figure of the gentleman in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations and Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. The basis for comparison will be the figure of the gentleman.
- Developed by you: The question may simply ask that you compare the two novels. If so, you will need to develop a basis for comparison, that is, a theme, concern, or device common to both works from which you can draw similarities and differences.
Develop a list of similarities and differences
Once you know your basis for comparison, think critically about the similarities and differences between the items you are comparing, and compile a list of them.
For example, you might decide that in Great Expectations, being a true gentleman is not a matter of manners or position but morality, whereas in The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, being a true gentleman is not about luxury and self-indulgence but hard work and productivity.
The list you have generated is not yet your outline for the essay, but it should provide you with enough similarities and differences to construct an initial plan.
Develop a thesis based on the relative weight of similarities and differences
Once you have listed similarities and differences, decide whether the similarities on the whole outweigh the differences or vice versa. Create a thesis statement that reflects their relative weights. A more complex thesis will usually include both similarities and differences. Here are examples of the two main cases:
- Differences outweigh similarities:
While Callaghan’s “All the Years of Her Life” and Mistry’s “Of White Hairs and Cricket” both follow the conventions of the coming-of-age narrative, Callaghan’s story adheres more closely to these conventions by allowing its central protagonist to mature. In Mistry’s story, by contrast, no real growth occurs.
- Similarities outweigh differences:
Although Darwin and Lamarck came to different conclusions about whether acquired traits can be inherited, they shared the key distinction of recognizing that species evolve over time.
Come up with a structure for your essay
- Alternating method: Point-by-point patternIn the alternating method, you find related points common to your central subjects A and B, and alternate between A and B on the basis of these points (ABABAB …). For instance, a comparative essay on the French and Russian revolutions might examine how both revolutions either encouraged or thwarted innovation in terms of new technology, military strategy, and the administrative system.
A Paragraph 1 in body new technology and the French Revolution B Paragraph 2 in body new technology and the Russian Revolution A Paragraph 3 in body military strategy and the French Revolution B Paragraph 4 in body military strategy and the Russian Revolution A Paragraph 5 in body administrative system and the French Revolution B Paragraph 6 in body administrative system and the Russian Revolution
Note that the French and Russian revolutions (A and B) may be dissimilar rather than similar in the way they affected innovation in any of the three areas of technology, military strategy, and administration. To use the alternating method, you just need to have something noteworthy to say about both A and B in each area. Finally, you may certainly include more than three pairs of alternating points: allow the subject matter to determine the number of points you choose to develop in the body of your essay.
When do I use the alternating method? Professors often like the alternating system because it generally does a better job of highlighting similarities and differences by juxtaposing your points about A and B. It also tends to produce a more tightly integrated and analytical paper. Consider the alternating method if you are able to identify clearly related points between A and B. Otherwise, if you attempt to impose the alternating method, you will probably find it counterproductive.
- Block method: Subject-by-subject patternIn the block method (AB), you discuss all of A, then all of B. For example, a comparative essay using the block method on the French and Russian revolutions would address the French Revolution in the first half of the essay and the Russian Revolution in the second half. If you choose the block method, however, do not simply append two disconnected essays to an introductory thesis. The B block, or second half of your essay, should refer to the A block, or first half, and make clear points of comparison whenever comparisons are relevant. (“Unlike A, B . . .” or “Like A, B . . .”) This technique will allow for a higher level of critical engagement, continuity, and cohesion.
A Paragraphs 1–3 in body How the French Revolution encouraged or thwarted innovation B Paragraphs 4–6 in body How the Russian Revolution encouraged or thwarted innovation
When do I use the block method? The block method is particularly useful in the following cases:
- You are unable to find points about A and B that are closely related to each other.
- Your ideas about B build upon or extend your ideas about A.
- You are comparing three or more subjects as opposed to the traditional two.
Comparative analysis paper is a commonly assigned task that you will surely encounter during your academic career. Sometimes comparative analysis is even used outside of the educational world and inside the business world. Such papers are assigned with the purpose of contrasting and comparing one thing with another.
When your professor or employer assigns you a comparative analysis paper, you will be asked to weight and discuss two different things, similar in a specific point.
The majority of comparative analysis papers are written in high school and in college. Generally, this task may be assigned in any academic subject, mostly because there is no limitation as to what the comparison may be about. What is certain about every comparative analysis is that it must consist of a thesis statement that eventually has to be proven or denied.
When you are given the task of comparing two things that at first look have plenty of unrelated differences and similarities, it is completely normal that you get confused. Constructing such paper is a difficult task which requires thorough research and amazing writing skills. This is no longer an exercise where your job is to name all common and different features between the two compared things. Your job here is to use raw data and create a coherent, meaningful argument based on things that are similar in something and completely different in another thing.
Generally speaking, there are five key elements of comparative analysis paper:
1. Frame of Reference
The first element of comparative analysis is the part where you place the things you are about to contrast. This particular part is the context where you group the two things you are about to compare. It may consist of a question, theme, problem, theory or an idea. Also, it may be in the form of a similar things’ group, out of which you take two and place your complete attention into.
When making the frame of reference, the best way is to construct this part out of specific sources. Using your own observations, thoughts and ideas is always a bad thing to do in this particular comparative analysis step. Using your own theories instead of sources, quotes and facts can prove to be not only irrelevant, but catastrophic for your comparative analysis.
In most cases, the guidelines for the given assignment include the frame of reference, but sometimes you will have to create one with the sources provided. In the final type of assignments, you may not even be given a frame of reference or sources for its creation. When this happens, you are the one that must come up with the frame of reference.
If you fail to construct this type of content, your paper will lack of focus and frame, which will prevent you from creating a meaningful argument. The two things you are about to compare in the analysis should not be compared in a broad manner. Instead, you need the context in order to maintain a focus for doing this properly.
2. Comparison Grounds
The grounds for your chosen comparison must be stated in order to inform your reader as to how you have come to that particular choice. The need to set these grounds lies in proving the readers that you made a careful choice of things you will compare. You would not want the reader to think that what you did was completely random.
This part of the comparison process is set to indicate what the reason behind the choice you made was.
3. Comparison Thesis
Right after you have established the grounds for your comparison, you need to set the thesis. You should use the previous steps in order to do this. The thesis of a comparative analysis is closely connected to the grounds on which you have based it.
The thesis statement has the purpose of conveying the argument you are presenting, which of course must follow from the frame of reference. Additionally, the thesis in such analysis depends greatly on the things you have chosen to contrast and how they relate. Your job here is to elaborate whether those two things corroborate, contradict, correct, complicate, extend or debate one another.
The majority of analysis papers done trough comparison and contrast use ‘whereas’ to point to the relationship between the two things being compared.
Regardless of the focus of your paper, i.e. whether you will place the focus on similarities or differences; your main task is to clear up the relationship in the thesis.
4. Organizational Scheme
Now that you have set the frame of reference, comparison grounds and thesis, it is time that you organize the comparative analysis. Of course, these three points you have established will go in the introduction, but how do you organize the body of the paper?
Generally speaking, there are two ways you can do this. Firstly, you can discuss the first thing, then the second thing you are comparing. This is also referred to as text-by-text. The second way is by alternating the points about the first with the points about the second thing. This is called a point-by-point way of organizing the body of a paper.
The choice is up to you. In cases where the second thing extends the first one, it is highly recommended that you use the first scheme for organizing. However, when the two things you are contrasting are debate-engaged, the second scheme is the right choice.
When you choose the point-to-point scheme, you should work on grouping more points at the same time. This will allow you to avoid a ‘ping-pong’ effect in your comparative analysis. When you do this, the number of alternations from the first to the second thing being compared is lowered.
Regardless of your choice of organizational scheme, the main idea of such papers is to get to the most important idea of your argument as fast as you can. The task here is not to give the same amount of time to both the similarities and differences between the two things you are comparing.
5. A and B Linking
Let’s say that A is your first thing and B is the second one in the comparison process. Every comparative analysis paper requires linking both A and B back to the thesis you have previously set. This should result in allowing the reader to logically and systematically follow the sections and understand your arguments on the topic. Without doing this, you are making the understanding process much more difficult, sometimes even impossible.
You can always use comparison transitional expressions in order to link A and B and make them stick together. Such expressions include words like similarly, likewise, conversely, moreover, on the other hand, on the contrary, in the example above/below etc.
A comparative analysis is one of the most difficult tasks you will be assigned as a student. Therefore, you really must make sure that you commit enough time and patience into creating the perfect comparison, by following the above-mentioned steps. If you manage to do this, you will surely craft a brilliant comparative analysis!