Note: The text which follows was written several months ago. This note is an effort to
summarize and re-state the basic thesis in a shorter form. I'll re-state the basic theory first, and
then illustrate with examples based on the word, poverty.
First, a basic distinction between words (as lexical units) and terms (as words with a defined meaning) is needed. Most words can represent several concepts -- it is only when one of these concepts is relevant that we can think of the word as constituting a term. Because both word and term are polysemes with many meanings, it is easy to become confused when using them. To avoid possible ambiguity, we may substitute technical equivalents, lexeme for word when used to refer to a lexical unit, and designator for term when used to mean any expression that represents a concept. To illustrate, poverty, as a lexeme, has no meaning -- it is just a three-syllable noun with various properties. As a term, however, poverty, may refer to the condition of being poor.
However, the same word may also refer to a deficiency of ingredients as in "poor quality soil," or
lack of resources, as in "poverty of medical supplies." To use poverty as a designator, one needs
to know which of these three concepts is intended.
Second, any term (designator) is subject to possible misunderstanding for three different reasons: level of abstraction, metaphoric usage, and sheltering. The first two problems are well understood and have been much discussed, but the third has been neglected and is the focus of this paper.
The first problem was a focus of Giovanni Sartori's attention in his discussion of the ladder of
abstraction. It occurs when, in a spectrum of generic to specific concepts, a term is applied as
though it represented a more generic or a more specific concept For example, if fruit is used to
mean apple, it lowers the level of abstraction, but if apple is used to mean fruit it raises the level.
It typically involves adding to or subtracting from the set of essential features of a concept. This is
a serious problem for scholars attempting to generalize concepts from Western contexts to
different situations found in the non-Western world. I'll not try to discuss if here.
The second problem has been stressed by David Collier and others who talk about how an idea formed in one context is extended, as a metaphor, to different contexts. This usually involves the use of some but not all of the essential characteristics of a concept while adding new one's that do not fit into a ladder of abstraction. Using mouse to mean a computer gadget is a good example. Again, this is an important problem but there is no need to discuss it here.
A third problem involves sheltering concepts, and it needs our attention because it is almost
completely unrecognized and yet extremely important. We may see it as a problem of how to
operationalize concepts -- as defined in a dictionary, most terms (designators) identify very fuzzy
concepts. To make such a concept precise (to operationalize it), additional criteria are needed,
but every such refinement in meaning restricts the applicability of the concept. A shelter term can
be used unambiguously, in context, for every concept it shelters, yet out of context, an additional
unequivocal term is needed in order to express the intended idea clearly.
For example, poverty may be due to lack of money in a market economy, or lack of resources in a
subsistence economy. In marketized contexts, we presuppose poverty to involve lack of cash
income, whereas in non-marketized societies, subsistence farmers may live comfortably without
cash. We could make the distinction by speaking of cash poverty, or material poverty whenever
that distinction is relevant. However, in most contexts, poverty alone will be adequate because
everyone involved will know whether it involves cash or non-cash relationships, or a mixture.
In the CROP project, a large number of definitions of poverty found in the literature have been collected. Many of them identify a precise sheltered concept that can be called "poverty" without ambiguity in many contexts, yet its availability permits ambiguity to be overcome in contexts where this term by itself would not be clear. By accepting the dictionary definition of a word like "poverty," one can create a shelter that permits one to use the word unambiguously for a variety of different concepts, always provided the contextual environment is clear. When the context is not clear, however, having a set of sheltered terms permits users to substitute a more precise term to replace the shelter term. The paper which follows takes a different line of reasoning to develop this basic notion.