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Working with Concepts

Course Dates and Times

Monday 7 – Friday 11 August 2023
Minimum 2 hours of live teaching per day
15:00 – 17:00 CEST

Frederic Schaffer

University of Massachusetts Amherst

This seminar-style course offers an engaging and interactive online teaching and learning experience, utilizing cutting-edge pedagogical tools. It is tailored for a discerning audience consisting of researchers, professional analysts, and advanced students, and enrollment is limited to a maximum of 12 participants to ensure personalized attention from the instructor.

Purpose of the course

This course aims to explore the importance of concepts in the social-science enterprise. You will learn about two different approaches to conceptualization:

  • the positivist approach, which emphasizes the creation of technical and neutral vocabularies for measurement and comparison, also known as concept 'formation' or 'reconstruction'; and
  • the interpretivist approach, which focuses on 'elucidation' to gain insight into the worldviews of the people being studied. In this course, we will also examine how social scientists' backgrounds, including their language, historical era, and power structures, can shape the concepts they use in their work


ECTS Credits

4 credits - Engage fully in class activities and complete a post-class assignment

Instructor Bio

Frederic Schaffer is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he teaches comparative politics. His methodological area of expertise is the investigation of concepts. Substantively, he studies the meaning of democracy, the practice of voting, and the administration of elections.

What sets much of his work apart from other empirical research on democracy is his methodological focus on language. By carefully examining the differing ways in which ordinary people around the world use terms such as 'democracy', 'politics', and 'vote buying' – or their rough equivalents in other languages – he aims to arrive at a fuller appreciation of how they understand and make use of electoral institutions.

He is the current chair of Interpretive Methodologies and Methods group of the American Political Science Association and past chair of the Committee on Concepts and Methods of the International Political Science Association

Frederic is a board member of the Committee on Concepts and Methods of the International Political Science Association. He is also an executive board member of the Interpretive Methodologies and Methods group of the American Political Science Association.

Among his publications are:

As part of a new podcast series, New Books in Interpretive Social Science, hosted by Nick Cheesman (Australian National University), Frederic explains why you should pay attention to concepts and conceptualisation. Listen to the podcast here

In this course, you will gain a comprehensive understanding of positivist reconstruction and interpretivist elucidation, including their presuppositions, objectives, and tools. You will learn how to construct concepts by defining and organising properties, placing them on a ladder of generality, building complex ladders that incorporate diminished subtypes, and evaluating their quality based on criteria such as external differentiation, internal coherence, explanatory utility, and content validity.

You will also be introduced to basic elucidative strategies inspired by ordinary language philosophy and Foucauldian genealogy, and learn how to recognise and address issues of one-sidedness, universalism, and objectivism in social science concepts.

How the course will work online

This course takes advantage of the flexibility afforded by online teaching to offer a rich, multi-modal learning experience that includes:

  • Pre-course readings that provide you with foundational knowledge about working with concepts in the social sciences.
  • Independent but collaborative reading that gives you foundational knowledge about working with concepts.
  • Recorded lectures that teach you about the presuppositions, aims, and tools of positivist reconstruction and interpretivist elucidation.
  • Independent exercises that allow you to build your reconstructive and elucidative skills.
  • Live sessions that give an opportunity for class discussion and afford you practice in reconstructing and elucidating a concept that you have chosen yourself.

During the week, you should expect to spend roughly four hours each day on homework (readings, watching videos, completing exercises) in addition to the two-hour live class sessions.

What you'll need

A concept or two
You will need to identify one or two concepts relevant to your own research interests. You'll be working with these concepts during several hands-on exercises.

Hardware, software and database requirements

  • Internet connection on a computer with Zoom installed.
  • Software to open and read PDFs.
  • Ability to work in Google docs.
  • Access (from your home institution) to Jstor and the Oxford English Dictionary is optimal but not essential.
  • A tablet, laptop or second monitor to view worksheets during live sessions may be useful but is not essential.

There is no prior knowledge required for this course. All of the information you need will be covered in the lectures and tutorials.

Each course includes pre-course assignments, including readings and pre-recorded videos, as well as daily live lectures totalling at least two and a half hours. The instructor will conduct live Q&A sessions and offer designated office hours for one-to-one consultations.

Please check your course format before registering.

Online courses

Live classes will be held daily for two and half hours on a video meeting platform, allowing you to interact with both the instructor and other participants in real-time. To avoid online fatigue, the course employs a pedagogy that includes small-group work, short and focused tasks, as well as troubleshooting exercises that utilise a variety of online applications to facilitate collaboration and engagement with the course content.


This course description may be subject to subsequent adaptations (e.g. taking into account new developments in the field, participant demands, group size, etc.). Registered participants will be informed at the time of change.

By registering for this course, you confirm that you possess the knowledge required to follow it. The instructor will not teach these prerequisite items. If in doubt, please contact us before registering.