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Working with Concepts in the Social Sciences

Frederic Schaffer

University of Massachusetts Amherst

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

Course Dates and Times

Monday 5–Friday 9 March 2018
15 hours over five days

Prerequisite Knowledge

It would be helpful, though not essential, to have some familiarity with today's key methodological debates in the social sciences, especially political science. If you are unfamiliar with these debates, these books and journals will provide you with the basics:

The case for a unified methodological framework

King, Gary, Robert Keohane, and Sidney Verba, 1994. 'The Science in Social Science' in Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research (Princeton: Princeton University Press): 3–33.

The case for two distinct – qualitative and quantitative – methodological cultures

Mahoney, James. 2010. 'After KKV: The New Methodology of Qualitative Research.' World Politics 62,1: 120–47.

Goertz, Gary and James Mahoney. 2012. 'Introduction' in A Tale of Two Cultures: Qualitative and Quantitative Research in the Social Sciences (Princeton: Princeton University Press): 1–15.

The case for two distinct – positivist and interpretivist – methodologies

Pachirat, Timothy. 2013. 'Review of A Tale of Two Cultures', Perspectives on Politics 11, 3 (September): 979–81.

Yanow, Dvora. 2003. 'Interpretive Empirical Political Science: What Makes This Not a Subfield of Qualitative Methods.' Qualitative Methods 1,2: 9–13.

Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine. 2006. 'Judging Quality.' Interpretation and Method: Empirical Research Methods and the Empirical Turn (Armonk, NY: M.E. Shape): 89–113.

Short Outline

Concepts are foundational to the social-science enterprise. This five-day course introduces you to two distinct ways to think about and work with them.

One is the positivist approach to what is called concept 'formation' or 'reconstruction' – the formulation of a technical, neutral vocabulary for measuring, comparing, and generalising. This approach focuses on building concepts with a high degree of external differentiation, internal coherence, explanatory utility, and content validity.

The other is an interpretivist approach that focuses on what I call 'elucidation'. Elucidation includes an investigation into the language of daily life and a reflexive examination of social-science technical language. It is intended to illuminate the worldviews of the people whom social scientists wish to understand, and the ways in which social scientists’ embeddedness in particular languages, historical eras, and power structures shapes the concepts with which they do their work.

Requirements for ECTS Credits

  • Attend the course: 2 credits (pass/fail grade). The calculation of ECTS credits is based on your attending the whole course, and carrying out the necessary reading and/or other work prior to, and after, classes.
  • Attend the whole course, and complete the worksheets and written exercises for those sessions by Monday 12 March: 3 credits (to be graded)
  • Attend the whole course, and complete the worksheets and written exercises for those sessions by Monday 12 March. Submit by Friday 16 March a 2000-word document in which you either reconstruct or elucidate a concept of your choosing: 4 credits (to be graded)

Long Course Outline

Why take a course about concepts? There are three overlapping reasons. First, social phenomena do not exist independent of human conceptual schemes. The social world is in part linguistically built up. To explain the actions of people without studying their conceptual world would be to provide a grossly impoverished analysis. Second, we social scientists cannot apprehend this conceptually-mediated social world independent of our own conceptual schemes. The questions we pose and the answers we articulate are formulated by means of concepts. We could not ask whether a society is free without having some notion in mind of what it means to be “free” or what a “society” is. Concepts such as these are the prisms through which we see the social world. They are foundational to the social science enterprise, and the quality of our investigations hinges in part on how well we make use of them. Third, concepts matter politically. We rely on them not only to study the world, but also to intervene in it. How we conceptualize social problems determines what it is we try to solve through our actions. In short, the social world, the intellectual apparatus we bring to the study of this world, and our capacity to change it are all constituted, at least in part, by concepts.

What are concepts? How do they fit into our research? What makes a concept “good”?

Broadly speaking, there are two divergent ways of answering these (and related) questions, depending on the social scientist’s methodological commitments. By methodology, I mean basic presuppositions about the aims of inquiry, ways of knowing (epistemology), and the nature of the reality being studied (ontology). A widely shared methodological commitment of positivism, as I understand it, is a belief that social scientists can directly and neutrally observe a social world that is made up of entities (like families and classes and revolutions) that enjoy, or are treated as if they enjoy, a real existence independent of how people think of them. The aim of much positivist inquiry is, correspondingly, to formulate propositions about these entities based upon the identification and measurement of regularities within and between them. An interpretivist approach to social science, in contrast, usually starts from the dual premises that there are no “real” social entities, only culturally-mediated social facts; and that social science is always perspectival and entwined with the pursuit of moral or material goals. The aim of much interpretivist inquiry, consequently, is to shed light on how shared meanings and their relation to power inform or structure the social world and the study of the social world.

Whether one brings a positivist or interpretivist orientation to the study of the social world matters for how one thinks about and works with concepts. I call the positivist approach “reconstruction” and the interpretivist alternative “elucidation.” The main differences between reconstruction and elucidation rest on a few key dimensions. In reconstruction, the central conceptual task is, typically, to generate a precise terminology that faithfully represents a reality taken to be independently pre-existing. The main goals are to build concepts that have a high degree of differentiation, coherence, utility, and validity. In elucidation, the central conceptual task is, usually, to shed light on shared meanings, which involves mediating between the everyday language of those being studied and the technical terminology of the scholarly community. Such an approach requires seeing both everyday and social-science concepts as intersubjectively meaningful, socially constitutive, and part of a broader politics of concept use.

In this course, you will learn about the presuppositions, aims, and tools of both positivist reconstruction and interpretivist elucidation. The main goals of the workshop are thus fourfold:

1. For you to understand the difference between reconstructing and elucidating concepts and to see what is at stake in choosing to do one or the other.

2. For you to learn the basics of conceptual reconstruction: how to construct concepts by defining and organizing properties; how to situate the concept on a ladder of generality; how to build more complex ladders of generality that include diminished subtypes; how to assess the goodness of a concept using the criteria of external differentiation, internal coherence, explanatory utility, and content validity.

3. For you to learn basic elucidative strategies derived from ordinary language philosophy and Foucauldian genealogy and how to assess the goodness of social-science concepts by recognizing problems of one-sideness, universalism, and objectivism.

4. For you to gain practice reconstructing and elucidating concepts by doing in-class exercises with concepts that you yourself have chosen.

Note that I will also be available during the week for one-on-one consultations about your individual research needs and how the insights of this course might be adapted to meet those needs.

Day Topic Details
Monday Methodologies and concepts

In this introductory part of Monday’s session, you will learn what it means to adopt a positivist or interpretivist methodology and their respective approaches to concepts. You will also contemplate the value that each approach might hold for your own research interests.

Monday The basics of positivist reconstruction

In this part of the session you will learn a few fundamental tools of concept reconstruction: identifying and organizing the defining properties of a concept and situating that concept on a ladder of generality which includes its enclosing concept, contrasting concepts, and subtypes.

You will then reconstruct a concept of your own choosing and situate it on a ladder of generality.

Tuesday Advanced reconstruction

We add to our reconstructive repertoire ilearning how to construct more complicated ladders of generality that include diminished subtypes.

You will then create diminished subtypes of your own concept and place them on the ladder of generality which you have already created.

Wednesday Assessing reconstructed concepts

In this part of the session, you will learn to assess, using both positivist and interpretivist metrics, the goodness of a reconstructed concept. Operating within a positivist framework, you will learn to apply the criteria of external differentiation, internal coherence, explanatory utility, and content validity. Operating within an interpretivist framework you will learn to recognize problems of one-sideness, universalism, and objectivism.

Wednesday Introduction to interpretivist elucidation

In this part of the session, you will learn about the basic aims of concept elucidation as well as two key elucidative strategies: “grounding” (examining how concepts are used in everyday language) and “exposing” (identifying how concepts are embedded in webs of power).

Thursday The elucidative strategy of grounding (using the tools of ordinary language interviewing)

Ordinary language interviewing is a tool for uncovering the meaning of words in everyday talk. By studying the meaning of words (in English or other languages), the promise is to gain insight into the various social realities these words name, evoke, or realize. The first part of this session covers some basic questions about ordinary language interviewing: what it is and what can be discovered through it. In the second part of this session, you will learn how to conduct an ordinary language interview and gain practice doing one.

Friday The elucidative strategy of exposing (using the tools of Foucauldian genealogy)

The language of social science contains many concepts that have become stabilised, naturalised, or neutralised in ways that obscure from view their histories of contingency and contestation.

In this session, you will first learn to use Foucauldian genealogy to denaturalise the natural, destabilise the stable, and thus make space for new ways of conceptualising the world.

You will then use the tools of Foucauldian genealogy to practice exposing a concept of your own choosing.

Day Readings

Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine, and Dvora Yanow. 2012. Interpretive Research Design: Concepts and Processes (New York: Routledge): 4–7.

Sartori, Giovanni. 1970. 'Concept Misformation in Comparative Politics.' American Political Science Review 64,4: 1033–46.

2009. 'An Illustration.' In Concepts and Method in Social Science: The Tradition of Giovanni Sartori edited by David Collier and John Gerring. New York: Routledge; 72–74.


Collier, David, and James E. Mahon, Jr. 1993. 'Conceptual ‘Stretching’ Revisited: Adapting Categories in Comparative Analysis.' American Political Science Review 87,4: 845–55.


Gerring, John. 1999. 'What Makes a Concept Good? A Critical Framework for Understanding Concept Formation in the Social Sciences.' Polity 31,3: 358–93.

Bevir, Mark, and Asaf Kedar. 2008. 'Concept Formation in Political Science: An Anti-Naturalist Critique of Qualitative Methodology.' Perspectives on Politics 6,3: 503–17.


Pitkin, Hanna Fenichel. 1972. 'Context, Sense, and Concepts' in Wittgenstein and Justice: On the Significance of Ludwig Wittgenstein for Social and Political Thought. Berkeley: University of California Press; 71–98.

Schaffer, Frederic Charles. 2014. 'Thin Descriptions: The Limits of Survey Research on the Meaning of Democracy.' Polity 46,3: 303–30.


Foucault, Michel. 1977. 'Nietzsche, Genealogy, History.' In Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected Essays and Interviews edited by D. F. Bouchard. Ithaca: Cornell University Press; 139–64.

Mitchell, Timothy. 1998. 'Fixing the Economy.' Cultural Studies 12,1: 82–101.

Oren, Ido. 1995. 'The Subjectivity of the "Democratic" Peace: Changing U.S. Perceptions of Imperial Germany.' International Security 20,2: 147–84.

Software Requirements

MS Word. Adobe Acrobat or other pdf-viewing software.

Conceptual requirements

You will need to identify one or two concepts of interest to you. We’ll be working with these concepts during several in-class, hands-on exercises.

It would be helpful if you could choose these concepts in advance of the course. Please email me if you would like help thinking about what concepts you might choose.

Hardware Requirements

You need to bring a Wi-Fi enabled computer to do in-class exercises.


Austin, J. L. 1970. 'A Plea for Excuses.' In Philosophical Papers, 2nd edition. New York: Oxford University Press.

Collier, David, and Robert Adcock. 2001. 'Measurement Validity: A Shared Standard for Qualitative and Quantitative Research.' American Political Science Review 95,3: 529–46.

Collier, David, and Steven Levitsky. 1997. 'Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research.' World Politics 49,3: 430–51.

Collier, David, and John Gerring, eds, 2009 Concepts and Methods in Social Science: The Tradition of Giovanni Sartori New York: Routledge.

Goertz, Gary, 2006 Social Science Concepts: A User’s Guide Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Goertz, Gary, and James Mahoney, 2012. 'Concepts and Measurement: Ontology and Epistemology.' Social Science Information 51,2: 205–16.

Shaffer, Frederic Charles, 2016 Elucidating Social Science Concepts: An Interpretivist Guide New York: Routledge.

Taylor, Charles. 1971. 'Interpretation and the Sciences of Man.' Review of Metaphysics 25,1: 3–51.

Additional Information


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.