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Essentially contested concepts: Debates and applications

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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 too 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.

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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of California, Berkeley

Publication date: October 1, 2006

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