Elucidating Concepts: Introduction to the Symposium


Tim Büthe

Hochschule für Politik, Technical University of Munich

and Duke University

[**Original document page numbers preserved in brackets for citation purposes.  Figures and tables have been moved to the end.**]

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Tim Büthe is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at the Hochschule für Politik (Bavarian School of Public Policy) at the Technical University of Munich, Germany, where he holds the Chair in International Relations, as well as Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Policy at Duke University (on leave). He is online at http://www.buthe.info and can be reached at buthe@hfp.tum.de or buthe@duke.edu. He thanks Allison Forbes, Alan Jacobs, and Fred Schaffer for helpful comments on drafts of this introduction.

Concepts are the central building blocks of all theoretical work. Reflecting this centrality, conceptual analyses and debates have a long and prominent tradition in the social sciences, even if empirical research often moves very quickly from concepts to observations that are assumed to be empirical manifestations of those concepts. Consider, for example, the large literatures about concepts such as power,1 democracy,2 and the state3; as well as analyses of important concepts in specific subfields of political science, such as the conceptualization of anarchy in International Relations theory4 or the (ab)use of the concepts of supply and demand in regulatory governance.5 

Such work scrutinizing and advancing our understanding of specific concepts has been accompanied by general methodological work on “concept formation”6—for which Schaffer suggests the term “concept reconstruction,” since it involves “refashioning already existing terms in an effort to remove deficiencies such as ambiguity and vagueness” rather than creating concepts truly de novo or completely re-organizing meaning.7 This work has been further extended and enriched by analyses of the interaction between conceptualization and measurement,8 an entire literature on “essential contestation” over concepts,9 and warnings about conceptual stretching.10 Frederic Schaffer’s new book Elucidating Social Science Concepts cuts across much of this literature. His interpretivist critique has a consciously dual purpose. First, it seeks to advance our understanding of the role of concepts in social analysis by identifying the weaknesses of a positivist approach to concept formation or “reconstruction” and offering an interpretivist alternative, which Schaffer calls “concept elucidation.” Concept elucidation is partly a distillation of—and a “running commentary”11 on—existing interpretivist work on concepts and partly Schaffer’s original prescription for how social scientists might rethink their approach to concepts in social analysis. This should be of interest not only to commit- ted interpretivists but also positivist social scientists that recognize the limitations of a positivist approach.12 Second, the book seeks to provide “pragmatic guidance” to graduate students and other newcomers to an interpretivist approach, describing how to put elucidation into practice through the use of three “strategies,” which Schaffer calls grounding, locating, and exposing.

The first chapter, “Why Do Concepts Need Elucidating?” elaborates on the “positivist reconstruction versus interpretivist elucidation” of concepts. This rather stark dichotomization of scholarly positions on ontology and epistemology is intended to clarify the distinctive contribution of interpretivist conceptual analysis. Key to this discussion is the distinction between “experience-distant” and “experience-near” concepts, a distinction that Schaffer borrows from Geertz.13 Here, “experience-distant” is used to categorize the highly abstract concepts of scholars and other “experts” (concepts such as utility, social class, or the polarity of the international system). These concepts are the creation of the analyst and dominate positivist social analysis. “Experience-near” concepts, by contrast, seek to capture the understanding of terms as used, felt, and imagined by the social group(s) about whom the scholar and her reader hope to learn more through the analysis (concepts such as love, fear, or “we”). While interpretivists certainly use experience-distant concepts—at a minimum to transcend “the mental horizons of the people they wish to understand”14—they take a much greater interest, Schaffer suggests, in experience- near concepts, due to a fundamental interpretivist belief that those “intersubjective constructions, [which] provide people [. . .] a ‘set of common terms of reference’ to organize, navigate, and challenge their social arrangements” are fundamental to

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achieving an understanding of the social world as “social reality cannot be understood apart from the language people use to operate in it.”15

Schaffer illustrates the distinctive contributions of interpretivist conceptual analysis through an extended discussion of the concept of “family”16—one of the concepts used by Sartori in his pathbreaking work on concept (mis)formation. While recognizing the nuanced self-reflection sought, and even achieved, by the best positivist conceptual work, Schaffer nonetheless faults such work for an inability to overcome three related problems: one-sidedness, excessive universalism, and false objectivism. He illustrates these problems by examining the treatment of the concept of the family in positivist social science. An interpretivist approach, Schaffer posits, can overcome these problems in a way positivist approaches to concepts cannot, by asking a series of questions about “family” as an experience-near concept, with the goal of “clarify[ing] the meaning and use of concepts in lived practices”17—that is, through the elucidation of concepts.18

Chapters 2 through 4 then offer concrete guidance for how one might implement an interpretivist approach. Specifically, the three “strategies” presented in these chapters are chosen to help scholars address the three major problems of the positivist approach identified in chapter 1. “Grounding,” the focus of chapter 2, is meant to safeguard against one- sidedness, understood as “privileging those meanings of a concept that are important to the researcher while ignoring other meanings that are salient to situated actors themselves.”19 The chapter begins with a brief exposition of Wittgenstein’s reflections on language and on discerning the meaning of a word “from the different uses to which it is conventionally put.”20 Those uses are, Schaffer suggests, not characterized by “essential [common] properties” (as assumed in positivist treatments of concepts) and not even by a “definable, closed, given set of properties,” but are, rather, living and changing, with different uses having at most some “resemblance” to each other.21 The remainder of the chapter provides specific and hands-on guidance for how to “investigate” the Wittgensteinian, likely-to-be-complicated “ordinary use.” Recommended grounding practices include observing different uses, observing what it is that cannot be said, making explicit differences between synonyms—and more generally “investigating grammar” through interviews or the analysis of text. Investigating grammar, moreover, entails doing so “ethnographically,” since ordinary language uses are often peculiar to different communities, even when those communities are situated within the same polity and ostensibly speak the same “language,” such as tramps and medical students (two of the group-labels used as illustrative examples in chapter 1) from the same linguistic group in a given country. Such careful ex- amination (which positivists might consider to be an “inductive” approach to concept formation) yields an understanding of the varied ways in which “actors themselves understand a concept,” which is, Schaffer argues, not available from a positivist approach to concepts and conceptual analysis.22

Chapter 3 focuses on elucidating concepts across different languages and cultural, political, and temporal contexts (which Schaffer had in chapter 2 assumed away in order to explore the notion of grounding independently of such macrocontextual factors). Schaffer proposes “locating” as an interpretivist strategy for understanding concepts—that is, “elucidating historical and linguistic specificity”—and seeks to overcome the excessive universalism that Schaffer sees as inherent in the starkly positivist approach laid out in chapter 1. Avoiding “translanguage and transhistorical generalizations that do not hold up,”23 however, is by no means easy, as Schaffer shows in chapter 3 when he scrutinizes “missteps” in classic works by anthropologist Cliffort Geertz and historian Quentin Skinner, whom he considers “two interpretivist virtuosos.”24 Each of these critiques is followed by specific suggestions, including some illustrative examples, for applying Schaffer’s interpretivist approach to concepts across languages and over time.25 When conducting analyses over time, for instance, Schaffer’s locating of concepts demands that scholars be at- tentive to the possibility of a concept’s “birth” (in advance of which certain ideas might have been effectively unthinkable) or “death” (usually reflecting major, disruptive political or social changes, such as the end of feudalism), as well as “shifts in word use.”26

Chapter 3 ends with a caveat for those who might be tempted to take Schaffer’s advice to the extreme. While Schaffer’s key concern is a “misplaced...contemptuous attitude toward the particular case” in the contemporary social sciences, which he attributes to what Wittgenstein called our “craving for generality,” he cautions that we must not insist on cultural, temporal or other specificity to the point of losing our ability to abstract and generalize.27 This cautionary note raises, of course, the question of how to find the right balance be- tween grounding and locating on the one hand and abstraction and generalization on the other. On this score, the chapter

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offers only the (good but rather generic) advice that the right balance “depend[s] on the theoretical aims that animate our project.”28 This may be where good scholarship is more art than science.

Chapter 4, “Exposing: Elucidating Power” (supplemented in important ways by parts of chapter 5 on the “Ethics of Elucidating”) offers advice on how to avoid what Schaffer sees as the false objectivism of not just positivist but generally positive (as opposed to normative) social science: when under the banner of “value-free” analysis, scholars disregard “how everyday [and] social science concepts are embedded in relationships of power and thus carry a moral or political force.”29 Implicitly, the book’s most overt turn to the political dimension of concepts thus highlights what is probably the most prominent, long-standing concern of the Frankfurt School.30 This intellectual genealogy is not made explicit in the chapter but Frankfurt School progenies would surely be sympathetic to Schaffer’s advice, for instance, to scrutinize “the multiplicity of acts performed when a word is deployed”31 and to be attentive to how institutional context enables certain practices and forecloses others, so that alternatives that would be more ad- vantageous to the “weak”32 are rendered invisible and thus can be hard even to conceive of as a counterfactual. Schaffer brings these ideas explicitly to bear at the level of words and concepts, drawing on Ido Oren’s work to suggest a specific four-step method for “rediscovering [earlier] struggle[s]” when the outcomes (reflecting the power relations at the time) have become embedded in our concepts.33

This symposium brings together three sympathetic critiques by scholars who—from a quite diverse set of perspectives and grounded in very different kinds of empirical research—have long thought carefully about conceptual issues: Lahra Smith, Gary Goertz and Patrick T. Jackson. Their essays offer a critique in the best sense: recognizing strength but also incisively raising questions about weaknesses (including, especially in Jackson’s essay, offering alternative suggestions) for pushing our understanding of concepts forward. In the concluding essay, Fred Schaffer himself takes up the constructive challenge, sketching an agenda for moving forward.


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1 See, e.g., Bachrach and Baratz 1962; Baldwin 1989; Barnett and Duvall 2006; Blau 1986; Bowles and Gintis 2008; Dahl 1957; Frey

1996; Grant and Keohane 2005; Guzzini 2011; Isaac 1992; Lukes


2 E.g., Bowman, Lehoucq and Mahoney 2005; Collier and Levitsky 1997; Elkins 2000; Gleditsch and Ward 1997; Lauth, Pickel and Welzel 2000; Lijphart 1968; Munck and Verkuilen 2002; Paxton 2000; Plümper and Neumayer 2010; Treier and Jackman 2008.

3 E.g., Burckhardt 1989 (1860); Evans, Rueschemeyer and Skocpol

1985; Mahdavy 1970; Miliband 1983; Nettl 1968; Poulantzas 1969;

Sassen 1995; Skinner 1989; Spruyt 1994; Watkins 1934.

4 E.g., Bull 1977; Buzan 1991; Milner 1993; Powell 1994; Wendt


5 E.g., Büthe 2012.

6 See Bevir and Kedar 2008; Bürger 1987; Goertz 2006; Sartori 1970.

7 Schaffer 2016, 5.

8 E.g., Adcock and Collier 2001.

9 See, e.g., Connolly 1983; Gallie 1956; Lukes 2004.

10 See Collier and Mahoney 1993; Munck 2004; Sartori 1970.

11 Schaffer 2016, xiv.

12 Schaffer 2016, 22, 89ff.

13 Geertz 1983.

14 Schaffer 2016, 3; see also 71.

15 Schaffer 2016, 7, 6.

16 Schaffer 2016, 10–21.

17 Schaffer 2016, 7.

18 Somewhat surprisingly, especially given Pachirat (2015), Schaffer does not discuss the origins of the term “elucidation,” but it, too, appears to draw on Geertz, and specifically Geertz’s call for “illuminating” not just the understandings and experiences of the people studied but also the “connection” between those experiences and the experience-distant understandings of the scholarly community (Geertz 1983, 58; Schaffer 2016, 8).

19 Schaffer 2016, 12.

20 Schaffer 2016, 27.

21 Schaffer 2016, 31.

22 Schaffer 2016, 32–53.

23 Schaffer 2016, 12.

24 Schaffer 2016, 56; for the critique of Geertz, see 56–59; for the critique of Skinner, see 64–67.

25 To focus on change in other concepts, such as “class” or “altruism,” time is in chapter 3 treated by Schaffer as if autonomously given, but might itself be problematized as socio-culturally or politically, theoretically or analytically constructed; see Büthe 2002; Grzymala-Busse 2011; Hutchings 2008; Jacobs 2008; Pierson 2000.

26 Schaffer 2016, 64–70.

27 Schaffer 2016, 70–72.

28 Schaffer 2016, 71. See also Büthe 2002

29 Schaffer 2016, 12.

30 See, e.g., Marcuse 1964.

31 Schaffer 2016, 75.

32 Scott 1985. See also Gaventa 1980.

33 Oren 2014; Schaffer 2016, 82–87.