What is a concept? How should we choose a concept?

When we write social science articles, we write about concepts. What is a concept? How do we choose the right one?

Defining “Concept”

A dictionary definition of concept is that it is “an abstract idea.” It is a thought. For a thought to move from your head to the page and out in the world, the thought must be defined. The definition contains more concepts, each with their own definitions. The concept is a spider’s web connected to other strands & webs, and on and on.

We cannot ignore concepts and the meanings of words. Ignorance of what words mean produces a procession of unconnected “facts” which leads nowhere — certainly not to the accumulation of knowledge.

Thus, the social scientist’s job is to choose and define concepts. The definitional process may be taken from others’ work, in the form of a quote or paraphrase. Or, it may be a re-definition, in which you cite the work of others as you propose a new or nuanced definition.

Choosing Concepts

Conceptual choice and definition have problems. A concept may be stretched beyond its usable boundary to become vague and meaningless. “Culture.” “Social.” And the like. Some are so narrow that they are useless but for a too-small range of phenomena. Some were created vague and stayed that way, like “democratic deconsolidation.”

These problems can lead to the proliferation of new words and new concepts, each with their own definitional problems and the sorry fate of being stretched too thin or condensed too much. It leads to what John Gerring called “a highly complex lexical terrain” (1999: 361). We talk past one another. We misunderstand. But, some would argue, this fight over concepts is how science and knowledge proceeds. Gerring (1999) argues that we can improve.

We are told to be consistent with our definitions. But, it is how we define the terms, not whether we do, that matters.

Being consistent with a poorly defined term is not going to help your research project.

Dictionary definitions are helpful to start with, but they can be changed in the course of social science application. Let’s take “ethnicity:” “the fact or state of belonging to a social group that has a common national or cultural tradition.” It has some boundaries, but it’s vague. Is religion a part of ethnicity? How “common” must it be to set the boundaries between one ethnicity and another?

Thus, we need more.

Gerring’s Typology of Concepts

Gerring proposes criteria for creating, choosing, or modifying, i.e. forming, a concept (Table 1, p. 367). One can pick and choose the criteria as they wish, but choosing one criterion and ignoring another has a cost. “Tradeoffs.” The cost may be high, meaning that the concept is useless. 


“In the definition of a given term is achieved by incorporating as many of its standard meanings in the new definition as possible, or at least by avoiding any glaring contradiction of those meanings” (368).


It sticks in the mind.


“a concept is an abbreviation…” (372). The concept should have boundaries. Here, I believe, Gerring does not set many rules.


Attributes of the concept should be pleasantly related. There is a core, or essential aspect, and all others are related to it.


Boundaries are such that you can tell one concept from another. “…the clarity of its borders…” (376). The boundaries of others help to clarify the boundaries of the concept.


Concepts should capture the core and very closely related phenomena. Depth is the depth of this bundling. Depth is defined by what phenomena are within it, not by what phenomena are without.

Theoretical utility

The concept is useful because it helps other concepts to build a theory.

Field utility

The concept enhances, or does not detract from, neighboring concepts.


This is based on Gerring, John. “What makes a concept good? A criterial framework for understanding concept formation in the social sciences.” Polity 31, no. 3 (1999): 357-393.

Joshua K. Dubrow is a PhD from The Ohio State University and a Professor of Sociology at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

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