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Working with Concepts

Member rate £492.50
Non-Member rate £985.00

Save £45 Loyalty discount applied automatically*
Save 5% on each additional course booked

*If you attended our Methods School in July/August 2023 or February 2024.

Course Dates and Times

Date: Monday 29 July – Friday 2 August 2024
Time: 15:00 – 18:00 CEST

Frederic Schaffer

University of Massachusetts Amherst

This seminar-style course offers you an engaging and interactive online teaching and learning experience, utilising 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 16 participants.

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 conceptualisation:

  • The positivist approach, which emphasises the creation of technical and neutral vocabularies for measurement and comparison, also known as concept 'formation' or 'reconstruction.'
  • 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

3 ECTS credits awarded for engaging fully in class activities.
1 additional ECTS credit awarded for completing a post-course assignment.

Instructor Bio

Frederic Schaffer is a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst where he teaches comparative politics. His research examines the meaning and practice of democracy across cultures and back in time. His methodological writings develop language-centred approaches to foundational research tasks like comparing, interviewing, and working with concepts.

He is the past chair of both the Interpretive Methodologies and Methods group of the American Political Science Association and the Committee on Concepts and Methods of the International Political Science Association. Among his publications are:

His most recent methodological writings include "Two Ways to Compare" in Rethinking Comparison: Innovative Methods for Qualitative Political Inquiry (2021) and "What is Interpretivist Interviewing?” in The Oxford Handbook of Methodological Pluralism in Political Science (forthcoming 2024). Interviews with him appear in Democractic Theory (2023), Politologija and the New Books in Political Science (2020) podcast.

Frederic’s ECPR course—Working with Concepts—received the Cora Maas Award for the best course at the 2022 ECPR Winter School and Summer School in Methods and Techniques. In addition to teaching at ECPR, he has offered methods workshops hosted by a variety of institutes, organisations, and universities including the Institute for Qualitative and Multi-Method Research, the Kind Institute in collaboration with the Southern Political Science Association, the Methods Excellence Network, Concordia University, Pompeu Fabra University, the University of Innsbruck, and the German Institute for Global and Area Studies.

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 practise in reconstructing and elucidating a concept that you have chosen yourself.

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.

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

The instructor will conduct live Q&A sessions and offer designated office hours for one-to-one consultations.

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
  • 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.

Prerequisite Knowledge

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

During the week of the course, you will spend three hours per day in live class sessions on Zoom. You should expect to devote, in addition, roughly four hours each day to homework (readings, watching videos, completing exercises).  The instructor will conduct live Q&A sessions and offer designated office hours for one-to-one consultations.

Learning commitment

As a participant in this course, you will engage in a variety of learning activities designed to deepen your understanding and mastery of the subject matter. While the cornerstone of your learning experience will be the daily live teaching sessions, which total three hours each day across the five days of the course, your learning commitment extends beyond these sessions.

Upon payment and registration for the course, you will gain access to our Learning Management System (LMS) approximately two weeks before the course start date. Here, you will have access to course materials such as pre-course readings. The time commitment required to familiarise yourself with the content and complete any pre-course tasks is estimated to be approximately 20 hours per week leading up to the start date.

During the course week, you are expected to dedicate approximately up to four hours per day to prepare and work on assignments.

Each course offers the opportunity to be awarded three ECTS credits. Should you wish to earn a 4th credit, you will need to complete a post-course assignment, which will involve approximately 25 hours of work.

This comprehensive approach ensures that you not only attend the live sessions but also engage deeply with the course material, participate actively, and complete assessments to solidify your learning.


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.