John Stuart Mill, Two Methods of Comparison, selection from his A System of Login, New York, Harper & Row, Publishers, 1888, pp. 278, 279-283. From Etzioni Amitai and Du Bow L. Frdedrie, eds. Comparative Perspectives: Theories and Methods, Boston, Little Brown, 1970, pp. 205-210.


Mill's text is widely considered to be the first systematic formulation of the modern comparative method. Mill, however, thought that the methods of difference and the concomitant variations could not be applied in the social sciences because sufficiently similar cases could not be found. This suggestion is commonly rejected as over demanding scientific standard.


The simplest and most obvious modes of singling out from among the circumstances which precede or follow a phenomenon, those with which it is really connected by an invariable law, are two in number. One is, by comparing together different instances in which the phenomenon occurs. The other is, by comparing instances in which the phenomenon does occur, with instances in other respects similar in which it does not. These two methods may be respectively denominated, the Method of Agreement, and the Method of Difference.

In illustrating these methods, it will be necessary to bear in mind the twofold character of inquires into the laws of phenomena; which may be either inquires into the cause of a given effect, or into the effects or properties of a given cause. We shall consider the methods in their application to either order of investigation, and shall draw our examples equally from both. We shall denote antecedents by the large letters of the alphabet, and the consequents corresponding to them by the small. Let A,. then, be an agent or cause, and let the object of our inquiry be to ascertain what are the effects of this cause. If we can either find, or produce, the agent A in such varieties of circumstances that the different cases have no circumstance in common except A; then whatever effect we find to be produced in all our trials, is indicated as the effect of A. Suppose, for example, that A is tried along with B and C, and that the effect is a b c; and suppose that A is next tried with D and E, but without B and C, and that the effect is a d e. Then we may reason thus: b and c are not effects of A, for they were not produced by it in the second experiment; nor are d and e, for they were not produced in the first. Whatever is really the effect of A must have been produced in both instances; now this condition is fulfilled by no circumstance expect a. The phenomenon a can not have been the effect of B or C, since it was produced where they were not; nor of D or E, since it was produced where they were not. Therefore it is the effect of A.

The mode of discovering and proving laws of nature, which we have now examined, proceeds on the following axiom: Whatever circumstances can be excluded, without prejudice to the phenomenon, or can be absent notwithstanding its presence, is not connected with it in the way of causation. The casual circumstances being thus eliminated, if only remains, that one is the cause which were in search of: if more than one, they either are, or contain among them, the cause; and so, mutatis mutandis, of the effect. As this method proceeds by comparing different instances to ascertain in what they agree, I have termed it the Method of Agreement; and we may adopt as its regulating principal the following canon:

FIRST CANON. If two or more instances of the phenomenon under investigation have only one circumstance in common, the circumstances in which alone all the instances agree, is the cause (or effect) of the given phenomenon

Quitting for the present the Method of Agreement, to which we shall almost immediately return, we proceed to a still more potent instrument of the investigation of nature, the Method of Difference.

In the Method of Agreement, we endeavored to obtain instances which agreed in the given circumstance but differed in every other: in the present method we require, on the contrary, two instances resembling one another in every other respect, but differing in the presence or absence of the phenomenon we wish to study. If our object be to discover the effects of an agent A, we must procure A in some set of ascertained circumstances, as A B C, and having noted the effects produced, compare them with the effect of the remaining circumstances B C, when A is absent. If the effect of A B C is a b c, and the effect of B C [is] b c, it is evident that the effect of A is a. So again, if we begin at the other end, and desire to investigate the cause of an effect a, we must select an instance, as a b c, in which the effect occur without a. If the antecedents, in that instance, are B C, we know that the cause of a must be A: either A alone, or A in conjunction with some of the other circumstances present.

It is scarcely necessary to give examples of a logical process to which we owe almost all the inductive conclusions we draw in daily life. When a man is shot through the heart, it is by this method we know that it was the gunshot which killed him: for he was in the fullness of life immediately before, all circumstances being the same, expect the wound.

The axioms implied in this method are evidently the following. Whatever antecedent can not be excluded without preventing the phenomenon, is the cause, or a condition, of that phenomenon: whatever consequent can be excluded, with no other difference in the antecedents than the absence of a particular one, is the effect of that one. Instead of comparing different instances of a phenomenon, to discover in what they agree, this method compares an instance of its occurrence with an instance of its nonoccurrence, to discover in what they differ. The cannon which is the regulating principle of the Method of Difference my be expressed as follows:

SECOND CANON: If an instance in which the phenomenon under investigation occurs, and an instance in which it does not occur, have every circumstance in common save one, that one occurring only in the former; the circumstance in which alone the two instances differ, is the effect, or the cause, or an indispensable part of the cause, of the phenomenon.

The two methods which we have now stated have many features of resemblance, but there are also many distinctions between them. Both are methods of elimination. This term (employed in the theory of equations to denote the process by which one after another of the elements of a question is excluded, and the solution made to depend to the relation between the remaining elements only) is well suited to express the operation, analogous to this, which has been understood since the time of Bacon to be the foundation of experimental inquiry: namely, the successive exclusion of the various circumstances which are found to accompany a phenomenon in a given instance, in order to ascertain what are those among them which can be absent consistently with the existence of the phenomenon. The Method of Agreement stands on the ground that what ever can be eliminated, is not connected with the phenomenon by any law. The Method of Difference has for its foundation, that whatever can not be eliminated, is connected with the phenomenon by a law.

Of these methods, that of Difference is more particularly a method of artificial experiment; while that of Agreement is more especially resource employed where experimentation is impossible. A few reflections will prove that fact, and point out the reason for it.

It is inherent in the peculiar character of the Method of Difference, that the nature of the combinations which it requires is much more strictly defined than the Method of Agreement. The two instances which are to be compared with one another must be exactly similar, in all circumstances expect the one which we are attempting to investigate: they must be in the relation of A B C and B C, or a b c and b c. It is true that this similarity of circumstances needs not extends to such as are already known to be immaterial to the result. And in the case of most phenomena we learn at once, from the commonest experience, that most of the coexistent phenomena of the universe may be either present or absent without affecting the given phenomenon; or, if present, are present indifferently when the phenomenon does not happen and when it does. Sill even limiting the identity which is required between the two instances, A B C and B C, to such circumstances as are not already known to be indifferent, it is very seldom that nature affords two instances, of which we can be assured that they stand in this precise relation to one another. In the spontaneous operation of nature there is generally such complication and such obscurity, they are mostly either on so overwhelmingly large or on so inaccessibly minute a scale, we are so ignorant of a great part of the facts which really take place, and even those of which we are not ignorant are so multitudinous, and therefore so seldom exactly alike in any two cases, that a spontaneous experiment, of the kind required by the Method of Difference, is commonly not to be found. When, on the contrary, we obtain a phenomenon by an artificial experiment, a pair of instances such as the method requires is obtained almost as a matter of course, provided the process does not last a long time. A certain state of surrounding circumstances existed before we commenced the experiment; this is B C. We then introduce A; say, for instance, by merely bringing an object from another part of the room, before there has been time for any change in the other elements. It is, in short (as M. Comte observes), the very nature of an experiment, to introduce into the pre-existing state of circumstances as change perfectly definite. We choose a previous state of things with which we are well acquainted, so that no unforeseen alteration in that state is likely to pass unobserved; and into this we introduce, as rapidly as possible, the phenomenon which we wish to study; so that in general we are entitled to feel complete assurance that the pre-existing state, and the state which we have proceed, differ in nothing except the presence or absence of that phenomenon. If a bird is taken from a cage, and instantly plunged into carbonic acid gas, the experimentalist may be fully assured (at all events after one or two repetitions) that no circumstance capable of causing suffocation had supervened in the interim, except the change from immersion in the atmosphere to immersion in carbonic acid gas. There is one doubt, indeed, which may remain in some cases of this description; the effect may have been produced not by the change, but by the means employed to produce the change. The possibility, however, of this last supposition generally admits of being conclusively tested by other experiments. It thus appears that in the study of the various kinds of phenomena which we can, by our voluntary agency, modify or control, we can in general satisfy the requisitions of the Method of Difference; but that by the spontaneous operations of nature those requisitions are seldom fulfilled.

The reverse of this is the case with the Method of Agreement. We do not here require instances of so special and determinate a kind. Any instances whatever, in which nature presents us with a phenomenon, may be examined for the purpose of this method. And if all such instances agree in any thing, a conclusion of considerable value is already attained. We can seldom, indeed, be sure that the one point of agreement is the only one; but this ignorance does not, as in the Method of Difference, vitiate the conclusion; the certainly of the result, as far as it goes, is not affected. We have ascertained one invariable antecedent or consequent, however, many other invariable antecedents or consequent may still remain unascertained. If A B C, A D E, A F G, are all equally followed by a, then a is an invariable consequent of A. If abc, ade, agf, all number A among their antecedents, then A is connected as an antecedent, by some invariable law, with a. But to determine whatever this invariable antecedent is a cause, or this invariable consequent an effect, we must be able, in addition, to produce the one by means of the other; or, at least, to obtain that which alone constitutes our assurance of having produced any thing, namely, an instance in which the effect, a, has come into existence, with no other change in the pre-existing circumstances than the addition of A. And this, if we can do it, is an application of the Method of Difference, not on the Method of Agreement.

It thus appears to be by the Method of Difference alone that we can ever, in the way of direct experience, arrive with certainty at causes. The Method of Agreement leads only to laws of phenomena (as some writers call them, but improperly, since laws of causation are also laws of phenomena): that is, to uniformities, which either are not laws of causation, or in which the question of causation must for the present remain undecided. The Method of Agreement is chiefly to be resorted to, as a means, of suggesting applications of the Method of Differences (as in the last example the comparison of ABC, ADE, AFG, suggested that A was the antecedent on which to try the experiment whether it could produce a); or as an inferior resource, in case the Method of Difference is impracticable; which, as we before showed, generally arises from the impossibility of artificially producing the phenomena. And hence it is that the Method of Agreement, though applicable in principle to either case, is more emphatically the method of investigation on those subjects where artificial experimentation is impossible; because on those it is, generally, our only resource of a directly inductive nature; while, in the phenomena which we can produce at pleasure, the Method of Difference generally affords a more efficacious process, which will ascertain causes as well as mere laws.

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