Concepts & Concept Analysis

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    • 00:10

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER: Hello.My name is Dr. Felix Berenskoetter.And I teach and research international relationsat the University of London.This tutorial is about concepts.Specifically, I will be discussinghow students of international relationsneed to pay more attention to concepts.I will discuss why concepts matter, how to analyze them,and what the benefits are for students of world politics.

    • 00:39

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: What are concepts?And why should we focus on them?Concepts give meaning to our experiences of the worldthrough language.Even seemingly significant events,such as war or revolution, or processes,such as globalization, don't come with a name attached.Instead, we attach names to them to make them intelligibleand, hence, to make sense of them.

    • 01:02

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: So concepts enable us to grasp the worldby naming things in it.They give us what we call our ontology, a basic understandingof what is out there.As such, they are not only crucialfor meaningful communication, but they alsoserve as building blocks for our theories.Every theory of international relationsrevolves around some basic concepts.

    • 01:24

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: Think about power and security for realism, institutionsand cooperation for liberalism, or capitalism and classconflict for Marxism, identity and norms for constructivism.Such concepts, which are fundamental to howwe grasp the world of politics, are called basic concepts.

    • 01:46

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: The term basic concepts comes from Reinhart Koselleck,a German philosopher and historianwho spent a lot of time researchingthe history of concepts.Anyone who takes a careful look at conceptswill notice that the meaning of basic conceptsis not set in stone, but varies.

    • 02:08

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: For instance, security means different thingsto different people.Now, this may seem puzzling giventhat we usually consider the purpose of a conceptto fix meaning.But we should not be surprised about diverse readingsof concepts because concepts are vague.That is, usually our definition of core conceptsis broad enough to allow multiple interpretations.

    • 02:31

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: So let's go back to the example of security.Who's security or what security are we talking about?Now, security is a basic concept in international relations.But its meaning is tremendously contested.That is, scholars disagree about howand for what they use the term.Why is that?Security is often defined as a condition

    • 02:53

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: of being free from danger.This is a very general definition.And it implies that we have an understandingof a referent object, namely the thing that needs to be secured,and an understanding of a threat whichposes a danger to the referent object.So referent object and threat are the two key components

    • 03:13

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: of the concept of security.But which referent objects and what threatsare we talking about?Now, traditionally, IR scholars look at the state and issuesof national security.But actually it's not clear what itmeans for the state or the nation to be secure.After all, the state is a basic concept itselfwhose nature scholars have long debated.

    • 03:36

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: Are we talking about governments?Certain institutions?Territory?The people living inside the state borders?Or their values?Now, depending on which aspect we highlight,our understanding of what poses a danger or a threatto this referent object would change accordingly.And that's just among scholars talking about the state.

    • 03:59

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: Nowadays scholars and practitionersin international politics talk about individuals, namelyhuman security.The talk about the environment, global security.Or they talk about cyberspace and cyber security.And they talk not only about different levels of securitybut different kinds of security.One important distinction is, for instance,

    • 04:21

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: that they discuss either material or physical aspectsor ideational and psychological referent objects and threats.Now, some scholars are unhappy about this diversityand complain that the concept, such as security,has lost its meaning.

    • 04:42

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: But it just shows that our basic concepts are complex and canhave multiple meanings.Indeed, some may go as far and say that basic concepts areessentially contested.This was pointed out by the political theorist W.B. Galliein the 1950s.Gallie highlighted that scholars often cannot agree whichmeaning of a particular concept is better or more accurate.

    • 05:06

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: Of course this poses a challenge for communication.We may be using the same word, but do we reallymean the same thing?As well as for research-- how do weanalyze the world when we disagree about howto read basic concepts?Now, accepting the diversity or complexity of conceptsleads to important questions.

    • 05:28

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: How do certain meanings emerge and become dominant?What consequence does this have for howwe think about the world and, indeed, how we act?How do basic concepts become contested?Finding answers to these questions is not easy.But we need to engage these questions to understand

    • 05:49

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: the contingent nature of conceptsand why some meanings become hegemonic.We need to understand how conceptsare used to organize and reproduceparticular forms of social relations.And in doing so, how concepts alsomove some aspects of the world out of sight.And we need to understand how and why concepts

    • 06:11

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: change their meaning.To shed light on these issues, weneed to study concepts, more specifically the meaningbehind them, in contexts.That is, we need to take into account that concepts do notgain meaning in isolation but by being embedded

    • 06:32

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: in particular environments.Now, it is useful to think about two kinds of environments.First, the concept's links to other conceptsthat are supportive, similar, or contrasting in meaning.Let's take the example of war.A supporting concept of war is violence.That means we cannot really think about war without

    • 06:55

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: violence.A similar concept is conflict.Sometimes we use war and conflict interchangeablybecause they're very similar.And a contrasting concept, most obviously, to war is peace.So we can say that a concept like wargains its meaning by being situatedin a web composed of such supporting similar

    • 07:16

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: and contrasting concepts.And really, that is the case with any concept.Secondly, we need to look at how concepts are situatedin broader temporal, theoretical,and sociopolitical settings.This requires being aware of the historical lifeof a concept over time, its use by scholars,

    • 07:37

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: and its functions in political discourse.These three contexts-- the historical, the scholarlyor theoretical, and the political--are difficult to separate.And really, ideally, you need to look at all three of themtogether.So think of them has three layers of a cake.When you cut a piece, you really eat all three layers.

    • 07:60

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: So let's take a closer look at those three layers, one by one.First, a concept's historical context, its evolution,that traces changes in meaning over time and space.Take the example of democracy.So from this perspective, we would

    • 08:20

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: look at how and why our understanding of democracyhas changed throughout history since its allegedorigin in ancient Greece.This would involve looking at how the concept was invented,how it was transformed over time,and how it acquired its overwhelminglypositive connotation today.But also it would ask us to look at why a concept like democracy

    • 08:44

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: is interpreted and practiced differentlyin different parts of the world all the time.And we also may want to ask why the concept has disappeared,or never taken foothold, in some societies.The second layer is to look at the concept's theoretical use,how it guides scholarly assumptions

    • 09:05

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: and causal arguments.Let's take the example of the democratic peace thesis, whichis the most researched and very popularthesis in Western international relations.It basically says that two democraciesdon't go to war with each other and never have.Now, how does a particular reading of democracy and peace

    • 09:28

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: shape this empirical finding that "democratic states"have always been "peaceful" towards each other?Now, not surprisingly, the debate around this findingand whether this thesis is actually truerests on different readings of democracy and peace.And some scholars argue that we definethis concept, or these two concepts-- democracy

    • 09:50

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: and peace-- in ways so that they fit the arguments.In other words, so that the empirical evidence,or the historical record, confirms the thesis.Now, this already moves us into the terrainof politics, namely the practice of reading and definingcertain concepts in a way that fits our agenda.

    • 10:13

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: So here we arrive at the third layer, the concept'spolitical context, how it guides political and public discourseand action.Again staying with the example of democracy,let's think about the example of democracy promotion.Assuming that democracy is the best way to govern societies,

    • 10:34

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: Western states have long made the promotionof democracy a core aim and a core functionof their foreign policy.Now, this includes state building programs,such as in former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, or even Iraq,following an intervention with military means.But we need to ask what understanding of democracy

    • 10:55

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: underpins these foreign policies and these statebuilding programs.What about the fact that democracymay be understood differently in different places,as I mentioned earlier?And, indeed, do all the different actors involvedin state building operate with the same understandingof democracy, different governments,international organizations, from the United Nations

    • 11:18

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: to an NGO?And if they do not really agree on their understandingof democracy and what they are building, then whatconsequence does that have?As you can imagine, these are not theoretical questions,but questions with very importantpractical implications.They affect how governments-- and we're talking mainly

    • 11:41

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: about Western governments here-- distinguish between friendsand enemies among states.In other words, democracies are friends, and non-democracies,well, we usually are "suspicious" of them.They also legitimize intervention.If we believe that another state is not democratic enoughor needs more democracy, Western states

    • 12:01

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: often feel legitimized to intervene and exporttheir understanding of democracy in this other country.Or they ask for reforms so that itconforms with Western understandings of democracy.So in conclusion, let me summarize what

    • 12:24

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: is discussed in this tutorial.We need concepts to make sense of the world.And basic concepts are powerful toolsused by scholars and practitionersto guide thought and action.Most importantly, they can have multiple meanings.And as students of world politics,

    • 12:44

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: we need to understand this contingency and the performanceof the conceptual language around us.Especially we need to pay attentionto the political function of basic concepts.Again, think about some common sense or seemingly commonsense, events.Was the attack on September 11, 2001,

    • 13:08

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon,in the United States an act of war?Who and what is a terrorist?When and why are some interventionscalled humanitarian?And can we call the transformationsthat have taken place in Tunisia and Egypt revolutions?

    • 13:32

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: Most importantly, we need to ask, says who?And so, as I have discussed, we needto understand the contexts in which these terms gaina certain meaning.Now, there are two main benefits, then,from paying attention to concepts.First, being familiar with the history of a concept

    • 13:52

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: and the different readings it can and has taken over timewill improve our conversations because wewill be more aware of the fact that our counterparts may havea different understanding of a term, a term wemay be taking for granted.And so it limits the risks that we talk past each other.But the second and most important

    • 14:14

      FELIX BERENSKOETTER [continued]: benefit really is that we understandthat concepts frame our world, and within these frameswe disagree.In other words, these frames are contested,contested in societies as well as on the international level.And really so concept analysis iscrucial for understanding the politics of meaning.

Concepts & Concept Analysis

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Dr. Felix Berenskoetter discusses the importance of studying concepts to international relations. Concepts give us a basic understanding of the world, but they can be understood differently. Context is key.

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Concepts & Concept Analysis

Dr. Felix Berenskoetter discusses the importance of studying concepts to international relations. Concepts give us a basic understanding of the world, but they can be understood differently. Context is key.

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