Elucidating Social Science Concepts: An Interpretivist Guide, 1st Edition (e-Book) book cover

Elucidating Social Science Concepts

An Interpretivist Guide, 1st Edition

By Frederic Charles Schaffer


118 pages

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pub: 2015-08-06
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Concepts have always been foundational to the social science enterprise. This book is a guide to working with them. Against the positivist project of concept "reconstruction"—the formulation of a technical, purportedly neutral vocabulary for measuring, comparing, and generalizing—Schaffer adopts an interpretivist approach that he calls "elucidation." Elucidation includes both a reflexive examination of social science technical language and an investigation into the language of daily life. It is intended to produce a clear view of both types of language, the relationship between them, and the practices of life and power that they evoke and sustain. After an initial chapter explaining what elucidation is and how it differs from reconstruction, the book lays out practical elucidative strategies—grounding, locating, and exposing—that help situate concepts in particular language games, times and tongues, and structures of power. It also explores the uses to which elucidation can be put and the moral dilemmas that attend such uses. By illustrating his arguments with lively analyses of such concepts as "person," "family," and "democracy," Schaffer shows rather than tells, making the book both highly readable and an essential guide for social science research.


A century after Dilthey, we are familiar with what interpretivists are opposed to. Now we know what one extremely clear-thinking member of the tradition thinks interpretivism ought to mean with respect to social science concepts. Written in a plain-speaking and practical way, the book speaks to more than concepts: although interpretivists will be the main consumers, noninterpretivists will be curious to see the contents.

John Gerring, Boston University

Elucidating Social Science Concepts should be celebrated as a landmark achievement in the field. In this slender volume, Frederic Schaffer elaborates a powerful account of what it might mean to take an interpretive approach to concepts in social science research…. I cannot remember the last time I read a book that had such a fundamental effect on my understanding of what it means to do interpretive research – and what defines its distinctive contributions to social science.

Joe Soss, University of Minnesota, in European Political Science

For the reader new to the study of political vocabulary, or seeking to incorporate concept analysis into one’s own research agenda, there is no better introduction than Elucidating Social Science Concepts. This is no standard introductory text, however. In Elucidating Social Science Concepts’s second role, Schaffer offers his own trenchant intervention into the growing debates over the nature of concepts, their role within linguistic and social life, and their value to social scientists.

Douglas C. Dow, University of Texas-Dallas, in European Political Science

With this volume, Schaffer’s real contribution is the stimulating deployment of language, example and imagery to initiate a process of political imagination that is quite needed in political days such as these we face…. It would be a serious mistake for this guide to be read only by interpretivists.

Lahra Smith, Georgetown University, in Qualitative and Multi-Method Research

In Elucidating Social Science Concepts: An Interpretivist Guide, Frederic Schaffer makes a crucial intervention. Not only does he show us why and how concepts are critical in shaping research questions and findings, he also offers clear suggestions for scholars looking to engage thoughtfully with the concepts they use. The book adopts an interpretivist approach, yet it is a critical read for every social scientist.

Erica S. Simmons, University of Wisconsin-Madison, in Perspectives on Politics

The book is clearly and concisely written, which makes it highly readable. After reading the book, I can acknowledge that Schaffer achieved his aim to offer an interpretivist guide to elucidate social science concepts. The guide developed by the author enables researchers to make the hidden visible. By noticing distinctions that people who we study make, researchers obtain a better view of how they perceive themselves, others, their actions and their social world. The focus on concepts and specialist and everyday language sets this book apart from other methodological books. I would highly recommend Elucidating Social Science Concepts to both novice and experienced scholars working in any social science stream as it invites them to reflect upon their academic practices which produce and/or reinforce knowledge. Equally important, the book would be a valuable addition to qualitative research readings as it shows researchers how they can develop an in-depth understanding of meanings that people ascribe to their everyday practices, thoughts, and experiences which in turn enhances the quality of the data generated.

Sabrina Theys, Newcastle University, in Qualitative Research

Table of Contents

Contents: Preface 1. Why Do Concepts Need Elucidating? 2. Grounding: Elucidating How People Understand a Concept 3. Locating: Elucidating Historical and Linguistic Specificity 4. Exposing: Elucidating Power 5. The Ethics of Elucidating

About the Author

Frederic Charles Schaffer is a Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. He served two terms as chair of the Committee on Concepts and Methods of the International Political Science Association and teaches ethnographic methods at the Institute for Qualitative and Multi-Method Research, which is attended each summer by approximately 180 participants from schools, departments, and research centers around the world. A past Program Chair for the Interpretation and Methods Conference Group of the American Political Science Association, he now serves as a member of the Group’s Executive Committee. Schaffer is the author of Democracy in Translation: Understanding Politics in an Unfamiliar Culture and The Hidden Costs of Clean Election Reform, and the editor of Elections for Sale: The Causes and Consequences of Vote Buying.

About the Series

Routledge Series on Interpretive Methods

Praise for the Series

"All of the books in the series are a credit to the series editors -- it's really quite a remarkable body of work being built up, with a coherence and relevance and quality of scholarship rarely found so consistently across a series of this sort. I can't talk it up enough. Congratulations."

Nick Cheesman, Australian National University

The Routledge Series on Interpretive Methods comprises a collection of slim volumes, each devoted to different issues in interpretive methodology and its associated methods. The topics covered establish the methodological grounding for interpretive approaches in ways that distinguish interpretive methods from quantitative and qualitative methods in the positivist tradition. The series as a whole engages three types of concerns: 1) methodological issues, looking at key concepts and processes; 2) approaches and methods, looking at how interpretive methodologies are manifested in different forms of research; and 3) disciplinary and subfield areas, demonstrating how interpretive methods figure in different fields across the social sciences.

International Advisory Board

Mark Bevir, University of California, Berkeley

Pamela Brandwein, University of Michigan

Kevin Bruyneel, Babson College

Katherine Cramer, University of Wisconsin, Madison

Douglas C. Dow, University of Texas, Dallas

Vincent Dubois, University of Strasbourg

Raymond Duvall, University of Minnesota

Martha S. Feldman, University of California, Irvine

Lene Hansen, University of Copenhagen

Victoria Hattam, The New School

Emily Hauptmann, Western Michigan University

Markus Haverland, Erasmus University, Rotterdam

David Howarth, University of Essex

Patrick Thaddeus Jackson, American University

Timothy Kaufman-Osborn, Whitman College

Bernhard Kittel, University of Vienna

Jan Kubik, Rutgers University

Beate Littig, Institute for Advanced Studies, Vienna

Joseph Lowndes, University of Oregon

Timothy W. Luke, Virginia Tech

Cecelia Lynch, University of California, Irvine

Navdeep Mathur, India Institute of Management

Julie Novkov, State University of New York at Albany

Ido Oren, University of Florida

Ellen Pader, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Frederic C. Schaffer, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

Edward Schatz, University of Toronto

Ronald Schmidt, Sr., California State University, Long Beach (emeritus) and Davidson College

James C. Scott, Yale University

Samer Shehata, University of Oklahoma

Diane Singerman, American University

Joe Soss, University of Minnesota

Camilla Stivers, Cleveland State University (emerita)

John Van Maanen, Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Lisa Wedeen, University of Chicago

Jutta Weldes, Bristol University

Learn more…

Subject Categories

BISAC Subject Codes/Headings:
POLITICAL SCIENCE / History & Theory
SOCIAL SCIENCE / Sociology / General