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Workshops & seminars, Conferences & lectures

Defining and Working with Concepts in the Social Sciences - Part II (San Juan, Puerto Rico)

with Dr. Frederic Schaffer,
Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Amherst

SPSA - San Juan, Puerto Rico 2020
Thursday, January 9, 2020
9:30 a.m. – 1:50 p.m.

Dr. Frederic Schaffer,
Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Participants must register to attend: Register here


WSSR Coordinator
514-848-2424 x5473


SPSA Conference 2020
San Juan, Puerto Rico


Concepts are foundational to the social-science enterprise. This two-day workshop 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 generalizing. This approach focuses attention 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 both an investigation into the language of daily life and a reflexive examination of social-science technical language. It is intended to illuminate both the worldviews of the people that 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.

The main goals of the workshop are 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 one basic elucidative strategy derived from ordinary language philosophy 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.



You will need to bring a Wi-Fi enabled laptop as well as MS Word (or other document-editing software) and Adobe Acrobat (or other pdf-viewing software) to do in-class exercises. You will also need to identify one or two concepts of interest to you. It would be helpful if you could do that in advance of the workshop.


Workshop Outline & Reading List

Workshop Part II - Thursday, January 9
Session 1 - Morning 9:30am - 11:30am

Introduction to interpretivist elucidation
Operating within an interpretivist framework, you will learn to recognize problems of one-sideness, universalism, and objectivism in reconstructed concepts. You will also be introduced to the basic aims of concept elucidation.


  • 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.
Session 2 - Afternoon 12:00pm – 1:50pm

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. First we will cover some basic questions about ordinary language interviewing: what it is and what can be discovered through it. Next you will learn how to conduct an ordinary language interview and gain practice doing one.


  • Schaffer, Frederic Charles. 2014. “Thin Descriptions: The Limits of Survey Research on the Meaning of Democracy.” Polity 46,3: 303-30.

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