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Workshops & seminars, Conferences & lectures

Elucidating Concepts in the Social Sciences (ONLINE)

January 6 & 7, 2021 (3:30pm - 6:30pm)
with Dr. Frederic Schaffer,
Professor, Department of Political Science, University of Massachusetts Amherst

SPSA - ONLINE 2021 | All times are in CST
Date & time
Wednesday, January 6, 2021 –
Thursday, January 7, 2021
3:30 p.m. – 6:30 p.m.

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


Participants must register to attend: Register here


SPSA Conference 2021
*Registered participants will also have access to all workshop recordings until March 15th 2021


Concepts are foundational to the social-science enterprise. This two-day workshop introduces you to new ways to think about and work with them derived from interpretivist methodology. In contrast to the more widely-known positivist approach of concept “formation” or “reconstruction” (the formulation of a technical, neutral vocabulary for measuring, comparing, and generalizing), what you will learn in this workshop is an approach that 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 threefold:

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



You will 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 & Suggested Readings

Wednesday, January 6

Session 1 - Afternoon Session
3:30pm - 4:50pm

Methodologies and concepts
In this introductory part of the workshop, you will learn what it means to adopt a positivist or interpretivist methodology and their respective approaches to concepts.


Session 2 - Evening Session
5:00pm - 6:30pm

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.



  • 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.
  • 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.

Thursday, January 7

Session 3 - Afternoon Session 3:30pm - 4:50pm

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. In this session, we will cover some basic questions about ordinary language interviewing: what it is and what can be discovered through it.


Session 4 - Evening Session
5:00pm - 6:30pm

Practice designing and conducting an ordinary language interview
In this session, 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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