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Department Seminar: Engineering Political Concepts

Wednesday, February 21, 2024, 1:30 pm – 3:10 pm

Title: Engineering Political Concepts (co-authored with Patrizia Pedrini)

Abstract: Political concepts do not float in a vacuum; they refer to political phenomena rooted in political contexts. Changing political contexts can strain the relevance of political concepts for analyzing and understanding political phenomena. Consequently, conceptual change is the norm in political theory. Take the concept of corruption. It has changed from indicating the mere use of public power for private gain (e.g., bribery) to a broader unaccountable use of power of office (e.g., nepotism; state capture). The phenomena to which the concept refers have also changed across cultures (e.g., bribes vs. gifts) and over times (e.g., familism in the allocation of public office). We explore how conceptual change may be a form of conceptual progress aimed to improve the fittingness and explanatory capacity of political concepts with respect to the phenomena to which they refer across contexts. Acknowledging the rigidity of conceptual analysis in analytic philosophy, we test the promise of conceptual progress with reference to “conceptual engineering.” We deploy the conceptualization of corruption as a “deficit of office accountability” as a case in point. In addition to contributing to the refinement of the methodology of corruption studies in political theory, we also show how contextualization can strain analytic methodologies in the field and motivate the quest for conceptual progress.