Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Naming things right: Concept Building as a Shortcut to Good Social Science

During and after color revolutions (concept 1) many observers and commenters manipulated labels and meanings of these events as they saw fit. They were labelled revolutions (concept 2), coups d'etat (concept 3) and what not. There were orange, rose, tulip, yellow, apricot, cotton and what not revolution or revolution attempts. GW Bush went as far as calling intervention into Iraq and first elections held under American supervision 'purple revolution.'

Politicians can do whatever they want. What sucks is that lots of people caught these terms and started using them widely, including myself. Now I am reviewing scholarship on events that occured in Serbia in 2000, in Georgia 2003, Ukraine 2004 and Kyrgyzstan 2005 (I am deliberately avoiding to label them under a common concept).

I counted half a dozen or so labels including, but not limited to, color revolution, discontinuous political trajectory, revolutionary coup d'etat, electoral revolution, fourth wave of democratization, democratic breakthrough, modular democratic revolution, failure of authoritarian consolidation, cycles of patronal presidentialism, democratizing elections and liberalizing electoral outcomes.

I am sure this is not an exhaustive link. I am also sure that some of those definitions have been well defined and articulated. Finally I am sure that multiplicity of terms refers to the multiplicity of approaches authors take to this complex phenomena and that scholarly dialogue on the subject is ultimately good. However, I also want some conceptual clarity and discrimination/restriction. We can not nave twenty terms to denote a single event or class of events. If not narrowed down, rich dialogue on concept building will prevent formation of an effective toolkit to use such things in practice.

(Here is how a Cambridge scholar try to clarify the terms, I will need to expand this list and do it in a map/Venn diagram format. Source: Lane 2009, Journal of Communist Studies and Transition Politics 25(2))

and introduce a new term (same source)

 Moreover, what is missing is a map of relationships between proposed concepts. My intuitive feeling is that related or competing concepts either address different aspects of the same phenomena or denote events that have family resemblance to each other. This is especially evident when one wants to use the fast growing literature on color revolutions and non-violent change on current events.

 Let's take the example of Russia, which had fraudulent parliamentary elections in December and will have presidential elections in 2012. What basically interests me is will Putin lose power. Which term should I use if I don't care much about the small 'lab rat' nuances of how he does that, and just want a practical, short crisp answer based on a theory or rather theories? I will be doing it and blogging about it, but first will need to get down with the while conceptual mess.

 My limited knowledge of social movement theory, for example, shows that social science can come up with handy, readily-usable and functional definitions of what they study without being too theoretically shallow. So why not do it for regime change/democratization/contention studies?

 So far I think the best, simples definition I came across in a book by Bunce and Wolchik published in 2011 (Defeating Authoritarian Leaders in Postcommunist Countries, CUP 2011). It is on the cutting edge of scholarship on these events and the two have commanded their immense resources in a really good way to come up with a really good book full of nice ideas. Their definition of these events is democratizing elections (those elections that happen in competitive authoritarianisms and in which challengers win) (page 17).

 In retrospect all that was needed to be done to build a good concept was to see whether the available concept capture the phenomenon under study. I am sure most of the times it does. I learned my lesson.

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