Working with Concepts in the Social Sciences
with Dr. Frederic Schaffer, Professor, University of Massachusetts Amherst
Concepts are foundational to the social-science enterprise. This two-day workshop introduces participants 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 Dr. Schaffer calls “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 participants 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 participants 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 participants 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 participants to gain practice reconstructing and elucidating concepts by doing in-class exercises with concepts that they themselves have chosen.
Note that the workshop lecturer will also be available during the lunch breaks for one-on-one consultations about participants' individual research needs and how the insights of this workshop might be adapted to meet those needs.
Participants 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. Participants will also need to identify one or two concepts of interest to them.
Professor, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
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