Essentially Contested Concepts: Debates and Applications

Journal of Political Ideologies, Vol. 11, Vol. 3, pp. 211-246, October 2006

36 Pages Posted: 25 Jan 2010 Last revised: 25 Mar 2016

See all articles by David Collier

David Collier

University of California, Berkeley - Department of Political Science

Fernando D. Hidalgo

University of California, Berkeley

A. Olivia Miljanic

University of Houston

Date Written: October 1, 2006

Abstract

Conceptual confusion has long been a source of difficulty in the study of politics. W. B. Gallie's analysis of "essentially contested concepts", published in 1956, stands as a notable effort to address this problem. He explores the normative component of these concepts and offers seven criteria for evaluating their contestedness. In the present article, we examine Gallie's framework and develop two extended applications focused on "democracy" and "rule of law". We underscore major contributions of Gallie's approach, as well as controversies it has generated. Some important critiques argue that three of his criteria are two narrow. We suggest that these critics fail to recognize that Gallie offers both a restrictive and broader definition of these criteria, and we seek to reconcile their views with his alternative definitions. Further, some accuse Gallie of naively promoting conceptual relativism by undermining standards for evaluating concepts, and others argue more sympathetically that he is too optimistic about prospects for resolving conceptual disputes. It is of course difficult to achieve Gallie's goal of promoting the reasoned discussion of these concepts, given the sharply contrasting normative and analytic perspectives that scholars bring to them. Yet his framework, augmented by the refinements explored in this article, opens promising avenues for addressing this challenge.

Suggested Citation

Collier, David and Hidalgo, Fernando D. and Miljanic, Andra Olivia, Essentially Contested Concepts: Debates and Applications (October 1, 2006). Journal of Political Ideologies, Vol. 11, Vol. 3, pp. 211-246, October 2006. Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1540885

David Collier (Contact Author)

University of California, Berkeley - Department of Political Science ( email )

210 Barrows Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

Fernando D. Hidalgo

University of California, Berkeley ( email )

310 Barrows Hall
Berkeley, CA 94720
United States

Andra Olivia Miljanic

University of Houston ( email )

Houston, TX 77204
United States

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