24 March 1999
MEMO #1: FROM CONCEPTS TO TERMS
To: COCTA MEMBERS
From: Fred W. Riggs
Have you ever been puzzled by a term you use that seems to be fuzzy, having several possible meanings, but you would like to use it precisely for a single concept? If so, join the crowd! Many of us have this experience and COCTA was established to help us solve this problem by coping more effectively with the concepts and terms we need, including the creation of new concepts and terms whenever that seems to be necessary. Of course this is not only a problem for individuals but it involves everyone interested in scholarly discourse.
To help develop such a discourse on COCTA-L, I am posting this memo on my Web Page where you can read and print it out at your convenience. You are invited to offer substantive comments on any of the points made below, both methodological and substantive. Please also identify any term or concept that troubles you and explain the problems you see with it. By sharing your concerns with others on this list, you may get helpful suggestions about how to solve your problem, and I will also give you my comments based on the methodology we have developed in COCTA, as explained below.
BIRDS: A COMMONPLACE ILLUSTRATION
To illustrate what I mean let me first use an everyday example, followed by some more difficult political concepts. The simple example responds to a question about what we mean when we speak of birds. A first response might be that we are referring to a kind of flying animal. Testing that, we may think, "Well that includes not only bluebirds, but also bats and bees who are surely not birds." To meet this objection, we might substitute vertebrates for animals. That clearly excludes bees but not bats.
Then we may think about feathers, something bats dont have. Could we define birds as "feathered flying vertebrates"? That seems to be better until we think of the ostrich, a bird that cannot fly. This suggests two categories of birds, those who fly and those who cannot. We can solve this difficulty by removing flying from our definition: will not feathered vertebrate serve our purposes? We may conclude that any animal with an internal backbone and feathers on the outside is a bird. Moreover, these defining characteristics exclude both bees and bats. They also permit us to distinguish between birds that fly and those that cannot. No doubt, the overwhelming majority of birds can fly, but we cannot view this property as a necessary characteristic in the identification of birds.
This as conceptual analysis it relies on a text to specify the essential characteristics that permit us to put a set of objects in the same class, and to distinguish this class from broader, narrower and overlapping classes. Concepts may refer not only to objects but also to properties, activities, and dimensions. However, the simplest starting point for conceptual analysis involves the identification of sets of objects that share, by definition, some necessary characteristics.
Term analysis, by contrast, starts with the meanings of a word. When we look up the dictionary definition of bird, we find that this word does indeed refer to a class of feathered vertebrates. However, it also has other meanings, such as (1) a sub-set of birds, such as those sought by hunters, (2) inanimate objects made of clay used by trapshooters, (3) a culinary product consisting of stuffed rolled meat, (4) a flying object like a rocket, or even (5) an obscene gesture. Normally, in context, we know which of these possible meanings is intended so one can use "bird" without ambiguity. The fact that a word has many meanings (technically, a polyseme) does not make it ambiguous.
Ambiguity is likely whenever, in context, a word may have more than one meaning. Ambiguity, incidentally, does not refer to property of terms rather, it is a psychological perception that arises when one cannot be sure which of two or mere meanings is intended when a given expression is used. For example, if one wanted to consider only birds that fly, it would be confusing to use bird for this concept unless, in context, one explained that flightless birds would not be included. To make this distinction less ambiguously, one might use the technical term, Aves, to represent the whole class of feathered vertebrates, while using bird in a narrower sense to refer only to flying birds, or perhaps to game birds.
Technically speaking, a term is equivocal when it can have more than one meaning within the same discourse community. That creates a problem for social scientists because many of the words we use, like nation, state, bureaucracy, community, society, poverty, ideology, and class are equivocal, having several possible meanings within the same discipline or even sub-discipline and even more connotations for social scientists in inter-disciplinary contexts. Thus equivocal terms are often used ambiguously, as when one cannot understand which of several possible meanings are intended in a given context. Although bird is a polyseme, it is usually unambiguous insofar as one knows which of its possible meanings is intended. Unfortunately, this is not true for many social science terms which are often equivocal and likely to be used ambiguously. I will consider some example based on the meanings of assembly, elections, and parties.
To illustrate the process, let me start by describing a concept which I will call #A. This tag is only temporary because as soon as possible Ill replace it with a word or phrase that can be remembered more easily. I cannot start with any existing word because to do so will immediately bring to your mind a set of meanings that word already has, and none of them may be the concept I have in mind. The easiest way to identify a concept is to use a text in which its essential characteristics are specified as illustrated by the use of feathered vertebrate above. Consider this text which identifies a concept but does not define any existing word.
#A: an organization composed of representatives able to make collective decisions affecting the behavior and interests of their constituents
We have words for many different kinds of #A: assembly, legislature, congress, parliament, council, board, house. All of these words involve additional criteria and may have broader or narrower meanings. Assembly, for example, may have the broader meaning of any gathering, as for worship, recreation, or debate; it may also have a narrower meaning, such as the lower chamber in a bi-cameral legislature. Legislature is likely to have a narrower meaning insofar as it presupposes a political context, but the concept, #A, includes such groups in non-governmental settings, such as corporations and voluntary associations.
We also have many names for a #A, but none of them are appropriate terms for the generic concept: consider such examples as: Althing, Cortes, Diet, Duma, Eduskunta, Folketing, Knesset, Oireachtas, Riksdag, Sejm, and Storting. Admittedly these all have political contexts, but other names may well exist for on-political examples.
What options exist for assigning a term to the concept described in #A? The most unambiguous option would be to repeat the full text of the concept description, without changing it, every time we want to use this concept. However, this option is so clumsy and vulnerable to subtle revisions that would, in fact, change the concept, that it is quite impractical. The simplest procedure would be to use "#A". However, this is also impractical because such symbols have no mnemonic value they will be hard to remember.
A third option is to coin a neologism, which could a phrase like Able Representative Body, possibly reduced to an acronym, like ARB. Unfortunately, there is a strong resistance among social scientists to the acceptance of neologisms by contrast, natural scientists are much more willing to coin and use new words for the concepts they need.
Another fourth possibility is to select a familiar word and stipulate a new meaning for it. We might select assembly for this purpose. However, because this word already has other related meanings, it would be equivocal and hence likely to be misunderstood. Perhaps if we marked it by some means such using upper case letters, we would be able to distinguish between the ordinary meanings of assembly and its new use to represent the concept defined in #A. I will adopt this option and now propose ASSEMBLY as a form that can be used precisely to represent this concept. Eventually, if the word gains acceptance in this new sense, we could abandon the capitalization and expect that, in context, it could be used unambiguously.
Meanwhile, in this context, I shall always write ASSEMBLY when I have #A in mind. The word in lower case and with modifiers can still be used for more specific concepts. In the UN context, the General Assembly is a body of representatives of states. In many countries it refers to a National Assembly, including Bulgaria, China, Gabon, Jordan, South Korea, Pakistan, Senegal, Thailand, Uganda, and Zambia. These ASSEMBLIES represent individual citizens.
Other entities may also be represented: the Board of Directors of a corporation is an ASSEMBLY representing shareholders on the basis of one vote per share, whereas the Council of a voluntary association like the ISA or IPSA is an ASSEMBLY representing dues-paying members on the basis of one vote per member. This means that ASSEMBLIES can be sorted into sub-categories according to the identity of their constituents, i.e. those they are elected to represent.
The text offered above in #A refers to the ability to make decisions. Some councils or assemblies very little decision-making power they may be puppet legislatures controlled by a dictator, a ruling party, or a military clique. Other assemblies have advisory powers but no decision-making capacity the UN General Assembly may be an example by contrast with the Security Council which could be viewed as an example of an ASSEMBLY. An assembled body of people who are unable to make decisions for any constituency may be called an assembly but it is not an ASSEMBLY.
Moreover, to say that an ASSEMBLY is composed of representatives implies that they have constituents (to be represented) and that there must be some procedure for choosing them. We call such procedures elections, i.e. selecting incumbents by voting. The British House of Commons is clearly an ASSEMBLY, but the House of Lords is not since its members hold office ascriptively, simply by having a certain status hence they are not representatives. There are also groups, like committees, that have the power to make decisions but their members are appointed hierarchically, not elected. The definition in #A implies a polyarchic procedure such as we find in elections.
In an early COCTA-L message, Kay Lawson raised some questions about how to talk about different kinds of electoral systems. All such systems are based on a set of rules and clearly many possible variations are possible. It is not too difficult to identify some of the major questions that rules relate to, but they can be combined in so many different ways that it is difficult to reach agreement on terms for these combinations.
One of the simplest rules to handle involves the number of candidates in a voting district. This can vary from one per district, as is normal in the U.S. to everyone consolidated in one district, as in Israel for the Knesset, or in the Philipppines for the Senate. In between, any number is possible, but perhaps 3 to 9 covers the most common rules. The more members per district, the easier it is for minorities to be represented and the more difficult it becomes for constituents to know all the candidates. The term, proportional representation (PR) is typically used for such systems although there are great variations in the in the details of these rules.
Since voters can scarcely know all the candidates when they are numerous, they tend to rely heavily on political parties for guidance, and the more parties can control the votes of their members in an ASSEMBLY, the more voters will endorse their preferences. Indeed, they may be required to choose between party lists rather than vote for individuals, although in such list systems, they may be able to rank order candidates within a party list. Such list systems contrast with the rule prevalent in America where individuals stand for election and voters choose the persons they prefer.
A third set of rules involves the degree to which voters can express their preferences among the candidates they support. Such rules enable voters second or third choices to be taken into account in the event their first choice candidates are eliminated. Again, there are significant variations among these rules.
When a set of variables like this can be combined in different ways, the result involves different configurations that cannot easily be reduced to a few concepts. We often use the names for a particular combination such as the one used in the U.S., Australia, Germany, Israel, Lebanon, or Zimbabwe, or the name of someone who designed a system. Rather than try to conceptualize all these possibilities, I think we need to identify the key variables and represent them in the various possible permutations that constitute any particular electoral system.
The role of parties in the conduct of elections was mentioned above. Perhaps even more importantly, parties play a decisive role in nominating candidates for election.
No doubt, candidates may simply nominate themselves by offering to run for office, or by collecting signatures on a petition. More significantly, however, parties nominate candidates although they themselves may choose among volunteers who offer their services. The American primaries used to select party nominees provide an example. Electoral systems that enable parties to nominate candidates are partisan, whereas those that do not use parties are called non-partisan. The logic of ASSEMBLIES and of elections implicates parties and, consequently, we need to be clear about the relevant concepts when we think about this whole subject.
IES and this will then bring this note to an end. Moreover, since the presentations by Ted Lowi and Mauro Calise about the Hyperpolitics conceptual system focused on political parties, it is relevant to the goals of this note to say something about this term.
My dictionary identifies six concepts that can be represented by the word, party. Five of them are irrelevant for present purposes so I will not mention them. The one that is most relevant, however, is not the concept we need in this context. It defines a party as an organized group interested in shaping government policy. No doubt, nominating candidates for seats in an ASSEMBLY is one of the ways a party may influence government, but this definition does not mention nominating candidates, the key function I want to focus on in a concept we may tag as #P. Moreover, since candidates are also selected for membership of non-governmental ASSEMBLIES, the dictionary definition of parties would not include them. What I have in mind is a concept that can be described as follows:
#P: an organization that nominates candidates for election to an ASSEMBLY.
If we use party to represent this concept, we may be misunderstood because a group meeting the criteria given in #P may nominate candidates for seats in a non-governmental assembly. Any group that is a #P may also do other in addition to nominating candidates it may campaign for their election, raise money, adopt platforms, provide services, and nominate candidates for other kinds of elections, such as for a presidency. In fact an important difference between types of #P is that some do and others do not nominate candidates for the office of head of government. To qualify as a #P, however, the group must nominate candidates for election to an ASSEMBLY. Following this example, I shall use PARTY, capitalized, to represent the concept, #P. Just as many ASSEMBLIES are not called assemblies, and many so-called assemblies are not ASSEMBLIES, so we may say that many PARTIES are not called parties, and many organizations that call themselves parties are not PARTIES. The term, PARTIES, will be used only for the concept #P described above.
Types of PARTIES
Just as there are different kinds of birds those who fly and those who cannot so there are different kinds of PARTIES: those that nominate candidates for president are found only in separation-of-powers regimes, whereas in parliamentary systems they do not nominate chief executives. Here let me identify two other properties that identify significantly different kinds of PARTIES.
#C. PARTY candidates must compete for votes in order to be elected
We often use the word open to characterize an electoral system in which competition between candidates is normal. However, this adjective is inappropriate when applied to parties except as it might refer to the procedures they use internally to select their nominees. A more appropriate adjective might be competitive. I shall, therefore, write COMPETITIVE PARTIES to refer to PARTIES that meet the criterion specified in #C. By contrast, NON-COMPETITIVE PARTIES, often called single parties, do not have to face opposition in elections. I have difficulty with this term because single refers to a property of the party rather than the electoral context in which its candidates seek election for example, the American Republican and Democratic Parties are federations of state and Congressional parties, rather than coherent ("single") parties. Also, single can be confused with hegemonic, an adjective that characterizes parties which always win elections even though they do face weak opposition parties.
Long ago I had an argument with Giovanni Sartori, the first COCTA chairman, with whom I co-founded the committee after an ad hoc meeting we called at the 1970 Congress of the International Political Science Association in Munich. He has written books about Political Parties and is a leading authority on this subject, which I am not. However, when I asked him if he would class the Communist Party in the Soviet Union that was many years ago as a "party," he said no because it was not competitive. I argued that, like insisting that birds that dont fly are not really birds, it is unreasonable to insist that all PARTIES be competitive. I claimed that the Communist Party in the USSR was a PARTY in the sense defined in #P.
No doubt, when Political Scientists limit their studies to democratic states in which competition between parties always prevails, they may choose to use party only in the sense of COMPETITIVE PARTIES. However, is it reasonable to insist that anyone examining a NON-COMPETITIVE PARTY should not use the word, party, in such a context.
Another property used in the description of #A specifies the ability to make decisions. Logically, therefore, the representatives nominated by a PARTY for seats in an ASSEMBLY must have the power to make decisions. Let me describe this concept as:
#D: the capacity of representatives nominated by a PARTY to make decisions when they become elected members of an ASSEMBLY.
No doubt, it is assumed in all discussions of democratic polities that their ASSEMBLIES can in fact influence public policies and affect the lives of their constituents. It seems gratuitous, therefore, to make a point of the capacity described in #D. However, when I went to Thailand in 1957 to do field research, I discovered that, under the military dictatorship then in power, free and open elections were held for seats in Parliament, and a number of competing groups nominated candidates for election to these seats they called themselves "parties."
Moreover, so far as I could see, these elections were conducted by the book. All the standard rules of free and open elections were obeyed. Nevertheless, the ruling junta always got majority support in Parliament for the bills it proposed, and no bills offered by opponents of the junta were ever adopted. The junta appointed some members of Parliament and used enough pork barrel support to make sure that its preferences always prevailed. We might refer to the Thai Parliament at that time (its no longer the case, fortunately) as a PUPPET ASSEMBLY.
One could argue that organizations that nominate candidates for election to a PUPPET ASSEMBLY are not real parties. I felt that this involved a criterion that would not only offend politicians in many countries, but it could not be operationalized. Research on legislative bodies in authoritarian regimes demonstrates that they often perform useful functions even when they cannot overrule the government. These functions often involve decisions made by ASSEMBLY members, both individually, through committees, and even in plenary votes. My preference was to recognize the self-named parties in such a regime as SHADOW PARTIES, or to find some other adjective that would distinguish them from the PARTIES that exercise significant power over public policies in the legislative process. They might, by contrast, be referred to as EFFECTIVE PARTIES: again, a different adjective might be more appropriate.
In view of the contemporary globalization of our world, I believe we cannot afford to use a term like party in a sense that relates only to democratic regimes. We need a concept that includes all organized groups that nominate candidates for election to an ASSEMBLY, in non-governmental as well as governmental contexts, and in one-party regimes and military dictatorships. If we do that, we can then use modifiers to identify EFFECTIVE PARTIES in democratic systems by contrast with SHADOW PARTIES and NON-COMPETITIVE PARTIES in different kinds of non-democratic regimes. By using such concepts and terms, one can facilitate comparative studies that produce theories designed to explain both the causes and consequences of different kinds of PARTIES and how they relate to democracy, stability, development, and other such matters.
Let me now say that the discussion above whether of birds, assemblies, elections, or parties -- was intended to illustrate a process of conceptual and terminological analysis that I recommend for COCTA members. It is in no sense a recommendation for any of the terms used here, nor does it call for standardization. In order to make a recommendation, I would need to make a more detailed analysis, refer to the relevant literature, and offer more supporting data. Here, instead, I offered a simplified example in order to illustrate how one might go about identifying the concepts needed in any domain and then looking for suitable terms to represent them.
This example also relates to a point which Enid Bloch made last Fall. She expressed concern that we might try to impose ethnocentric Western concepts on the rest of the world. It is true that if one insists that party be used only to refer to COMPETITIVE EFFECTIVE PARTIES, then the notion will be applicable only in countries that have more or less successful democratic political institutions. By recognizing the existence of PARTIES that are neither competitive nor effective, we can broaden the scope of comparative analysis to include forms of organization that are significantly different and, indeed, can be found in many countries outside the Western orbit, or the circle of effective democracies.
Admittedly this example involves concepts that arise in the West but have, with adaptations, been extended throughout the world by processes of globalization. We can also see that indigenous concepts found in non-Western societies have or can spread, because of globalization, into Western contexts. We might, for example, consider caste as this term has been used in India, but is now often applied in the West. The Indians use an indigenous term, varna, to refer to much of what outsiders call caste. They have other terms as well and I will not discuss this topic here, although it interests me a great deal. I mention it here to illustrate the idea that concepts indigenous to non-Western societies may not only be intrinsically important and worthy of attention, but they may also be applicable in the analysis of Western societies. If Western scholars will accept relevant indigenous concepts from all parts of the world, they will not only enhance their capacity to develop globally relevant theories but also, I believe, improve their ability to understand themselves. At least, I intend to explore this possibility in a future memo.
All readers of this note are invited to offer substantive comments on any of the points made above both as to methodology and substance. In addition, please identify any troublesome term or concept and explain the problem you see with it. By sharing these thoughts with the author and with others through COCTA-L, respondents may get helpful suggestions for themselves and benefit all other readers as well.
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