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Working with Concepts:

Introduction to Positivist Reconstruction and Interpretivist Elucidation

with Dr. Frederic Schaffer

January 13th, 2023
9:30 a.m. - 1:50 p.m. (EST)

Working with Concepts:

Introduction to Positivist Reconstruction and Interpretivist Elucidation

Friday, January 13th 9:30 a.m. - 1:50 p.m. (EST)


Dr. Frederic Schaffer

Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts, Amherst


Concepts are foundational to the social-science enterprise. This 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 this workshop are fourfold:

  1. For participants to understand the difference between reconstructing and elucidating concepts;

  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 one basic elucidative strategy derived from ordinary language philosophy and how to assess the goodness of social-science concepts by recognizing problems of one-sidedness, universalism, and objectivism;

  4. For participants to gain some practice reconstructing and elucidating concepts by doing two in-class exercises.


Audience & Prerequisites

Participants should have some familiarity with the key methodological debates today in the social sciences, and especially within political science. If not, they should do the background readings listed below.

Background & Suggested Readings

Background readings

The case for a unified methodological framework

King, Gary, Robert Keohane, and Sidney Verba. 1994. “The Science in Social Science” In Designing Social Inquiry: Scientific Inference in Qualitative Research (Princeton: Princeton University Press): 3-33.

The case for two distinct – qualitative and quantitative – methodological cultures

Mahoney, James. 2010. “After KKV: The New Methodology of Qualitative Research.” World Politics 62,1: 120-47.

Goertz, Gary and James Mahoney. 2012. “Introduction.” In A Tale of Two Cultures: Qualitative and Quantitative Research in the Social Sciences (Princeton: Princeton University Press): 1-15.

The case for two distinct – positivist and interpretivist – methodologies

Pachirat, Timothy. 2013. “Review of A Tale of Two Cultures.” Perspectives on Politics 11, 3 (September): 979-81.

Yanow, Dvora. 2003. “Interpretive Empirical Political Science: What Makes This Not a Subfield of Qualitative Methods.” Qualitative Methods 1,2: 9-13.

Schwartz-Shea, Peregrine and Dvora Yanow.  2012. “Designing for Trustworthiness: Knowledge Claims and Evaluations of Interpretive Research.” In Interpretive Research Design: Concepts and Processes (New York: Routledge): 91-114.


Suggested readings


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. 

Advanced reconstruction

Collier, David and Steven Levitsky. 1997. “Democracy with Adjectives: Conceptual Innovation in Comparative Research.” World Politics 49,3: 430-51.


Assessing reconstruction

Gerring, John. 1999. “What Makes a Concept Good? A Critical Framework for Understanding Concept Formation in the Social Sciences.” Polity 31,3: 358-93.

An interpretivist critique of reconstruction

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.


An example of elucidation

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

Certificate Credits: 1

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