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.