On Conceptual Transfer versus Conceptual Stretching in Argumentation.

Although I have enjoyed participating in this weblog collective, I was unprepared to deal with the inability of many commentators to construct a proper argument in the debates about posts. By “inability to construct a proper argument” I do not mean those that  resort to ad hominems and vulgarity (whom we have thankfully excised via moderation). Nor do I refer to those who substitute opinion for fact and make statements or claims on subjects that they clearly know little about.  Instead, I am referring to those otherwise thoughtful commentators who misuse concepts and terms when making their arguments. I refer not to those who deliberately do so to be polemical or provocative, but to those who inadvertently do so. The main problem for the latter is the inability to distinguish between conceptual transfer and conceptual stretching.

Conceptual transfer refers to the process by which a concept or term is taken from its original context and applied to a new situation without appreciable loss of definition or meaning. Conceptual stretching refers to  the distortion of the original concept in order to apply it to a different situation or context. The first is a legitimate argumentative exercise; the second is intellectually dishonest or (most often) lazy.

Let me offer some examples. “Socialism” is a 19th century concept that refers to an economy in which the direct producers of wealth in a society appropriate the common surplus generated by their labours and distribute it according to egalitarian principles rooted in commonly accepted notions of need. Decisions on distribution take into account the need to reproduce the economic form via savings and reinvestment, so current individual allocations are balanced against the common interest in future allocations. This concept can be taken out of its 19th century context and applied, without loss of definition, to 1970s Israeli Kibbutzim, Spanish agricultural cooperatives in the 1990s or post 2002 Argentine worker-owned factories. In all of these instances, the concept was transfered to the new situation without distorting its initial meaning; in each instance workers make democratic allocation decisions about the surpluses they generate. On the other hand, calling the Obama administration’s fiscal stimulus package or progressive tax policy “socialist,” or referring to Labour’s macreconomic policies as “socialism,” betrays either profound ignorance of the concept or bad intent on the part of those who make such claims. In the latter cases, the concept has been so badly stretched so has to render it meaningless other than as some type of pejorative.

Take another example: “fascism.” Fascism was a particular inter-war political phenomena. It emerged in response to the Great Depression among the so-called “weak links” of the imperialist chain, former great powers or empires that were being eclipsed by emerging powers. Fascism was characterised by an industrial state capitalist economic project directed by a one party mobilizational authoritarian regime dominated by a charismatic leadership that used inclusionary state corporatist vehicles for mass participation in grand nationalist projects that included the military reassertion of empire. In all cases fascism was a “passive revolution” in that it sought to stave off perceived Marxist-Leninist advances in the countries in which it emerged. European fascism had three variants: Austro-Germanic, in which the core constituency of the national socialist regimes was the lower bourgeoisie; the Italian version, in which the core constituency was the urban working class (Mussolini’s black shirts); and the Spanish version, which grouped monarchists, the agrarian oligarchy and rural peasantry against the urban middle and working classes. In the first two variants, efforts to re-assert their imperial status ended in military defeat. In the Spanish version, the self-recognized inability to re-assert imperial dominance allowed the Franco regime to survive until 1972. As for the Japanese, their version of fascism was an amalgam that had the most cross-class bases of support for monarchism, militarism and imperialism, but without the party mobilizational apparatus used by the European variants.

The point of this extended discussion of the concept of “fascism” is that it was a political form specific to a particular historical moment in the early 20th century, one that can not be replicated simply because the material and political conditions of existence are no longer those that gave it life. The closest parallel to fascism–Latin American populism of the 1940s and 1950s–emulated some but not all of the political features of European fascism and did not have the same economic base. All other recent forms of authoritarianism evidence differences far to great to even remotely call them “fascist.” And yet people do, repeatedly. General Pincohet’s regime in Chile was and is still said to be “fascist” even though his political project was demobilizational and his economic project neoliberal. Commodore Frank Bainarama is called a fascist because he led a coup and rules by fiat in Fiji. Mugabe is a fascist because, well, he is.  What is true is that all of these individuals were and are authoritarians, as are many others, civilian and military alike. But that does not make them “fascist.” To label them as such is to undercut any argument for their removal.

In extending the term “fascist” to other forms of authoritarianism that do not share its structural or political features, the term has been stretched to the point of insignificance. It is now just an insult without intellectual justification. It is, in other words, argumentatively useless.

There are plenty of other concepts that come to mind when the issue of conceptual stretching arises. “Hegemony” and “imperialist” are oft-abused, stretched and distorted concepts. “Nazi” (as in German national socialist) is another popularly distorted term. The list is long, and it appears all to often in the writing/commentary on this blog. I would simply ask that people do their conceptual stretching elsewhere–DPF’s blog is a good start.

Even astute writers can fall prey to conceptual stretching. In his otherwise insightful post on Agenda Setting below, my colleague Lew refers to the likelihood of “a more militaristic, less community-based approaching to policing–in international relations terms, a more strongly realist law enforcement posture” in the aftermath of the Napier shootings and siege. The trouble with his invocation of realism is two-fold: as an international relations theory, realism maintains that the international environment is a Hobbesian state of nature in which anarchy abounds. Absent a Leviathan such as those that exist within nation-states, international actors seek to accumulate and use power in order to a) achieve security and b) pursue national interests. Power in such a view is not simply military might, but includes economic resources, diplomatic influence, moral or ethical leadership–the particular mix of what goes into the notion of “power” is complex and variable, as well as contingent on the objectives being pursued or defended. Power is not exclusively “militaristic” nor is it necessarily anti-community–the formation of alliances and use of supranational organisations for conflict resolution is part and parcel of the realist approach.

Lew’s use of realism to describe a likely police response is doubly flawed because it has been stretched to describe a particularly military approach to law enforcement within a liberal democracy. In other words, both the context and the approach are completely different to those in which realism is applied to international relations.

This is not meant to cast aspersions on Lew. To the contrary, I admire his work and appreciate his insights. Instead, this post is an attempt to point out this very common argumentative flaw among otherwise thoughtful readers and commentators, so that we can avoid repeating them in future debates. In the mean time I shall ponder whether to write about another pet peeve: the inability of people to establish a “chain of causality” between independent, intervening and dependent variables when making their case.

14 thoughts on “On Conceptual Transfer versus Conceptual Stretching in Argumentation.

  1. Pablo,

    I found myself agreeing entirely with your post and mentally castigating those who misuse concepts in such ways, only to find that I was the example! Nevertheless, thank you. I’m a bit of a terminology Nazi (heh), but one who tries to live up to the standards I expect of others, so I’m not averse to reflection or critique.

    I think this sort of thing is a kind of autodidact’s blind spot, which is to say that people with an imperfect or ad-hoc understanding of a term tend to misuse it without realising that that’s what they’re doing; and indeed with the idea that the stretch doesn’t matter so much as the sense or intent behind the usage, which readers are expected to infer. As you’ve observed on a couple of occasions, international relations isn’t my academic bag – I studied a bit at undergraduate level, but largely I’m self-(mis)taught as an adjunct to my work in symbolic politics (in the case above an earlier draft had included weasel words to the effect that I wasn’t really comparing apples and apples, but I removed them thinking the post was already too verbose).

    So it is with most people, who misuse terminology they’ve acquired from an amateur interest in, e.g., politics or sociology or economics because they don’t really know how it can and can’t be used legitimately. Largely we get this from the fact that most of our information comes not from academia, or quality reference material, but from a media system staffed entirely by generalists, jacks-of-all-trades, self-taught pseudo-experts on everything who filter as best they can the complexities of such matters into simple predigested goo for folk to consume.

    What’s the cure, though? Should people refrain from using terminology they don’t fully and completely understand? Absent sufficient knowledge of a field, how does one ascertain which uses are correct and which are stretched beyond usefulness? Does including weasel words along the lines of `I know I’m misusing the term, just roll with me here’ serve any sort of purpose?


  2. Thanks Lew: As you know I value your thought. I certainly do not want to stifle debate because of the misuse of certain commonly abused/distorted/stretched concepts and terms, although that is what I am reacting to. A simple qualifier before using a “loaded” term is all that is needed. Of course, if you need to use the qualifier you are probably being polemical, not argumentative.

  3. The use of the term socialism is one of my pet bugs. Right wingers seem to equate socialism with state-socialism, leaving out an entire broad strand of socialist thought. It’s the likes of Proudhon and Tucker that the right wingers aren’t often aware of. As I’ve said before I prefer not to use the word socialist because looking at its history through the 19th century it is incredibly hard to define.
    Another one that annoys me and you may disagree with me here is capitalism. Probably the right winers would accuse me of equating capitalism with state-captialism, but from my own reading of history I think the meaning I ascribe to it is accurate that would be somewhere between the second two meanings listed here.
    I think though that these words have a long and confusing history and it’s largely silly to get too wound up about how people use them. These words have always been used fairly loosely.
    There is a heck of a lot of back and fourth on this at left-libertarian/anarchist blogs, see this for example: Socialist Definitional Free-for-All: Part I. These are all very intelligent people who know what they’re talking about.

  4. The thing about some terminology is that as Quoth the Raven noted those who view the “terms” (such as socialist) in a positive light actually care enough to debate about it.

    It is possibly from this, we can move onto the term “politically correct” for the agreed use of the term.

    Of course some, such as on Kiwiblog, delight in their political incorrectness, such as calling Greens watermelons – which is just going too far and being provocative.

  5. I’d argue that terms such as `politically correct’, `common sense’, `wise use’ which contain an implicit judgement have never had very much real meaning to begin with, having always been defined and employed to mean whatever their user wanted them to mean in the given usage. This is critical to political communication – define the lexicon and you define the discourse.

    Terms such as those used as examples by Pablo and QtR – socialist, realist, fascist, capitalist – actually have meaning outside of their polemic usage, even if they have become symbolically so loaded as to now be almost impossible to use with a straight face.


  6. A lot of this also fits into one’s wider ideology. A Marxist will define capitalism in a certain way a Randian another and someone from my political perspective another. Or like a Leninist will look at imperialism in such and such a way. A lot of political arguments seem to devolve into semantics. I mean there can be argument over the concept of ideology. You have to tolerate disagreement and not be shouting impure! impure! and try to hold a front of intellectual superiority to people who simply hold a different view. Sooner or later you just look ludicrous. If that all makes sense?

  7. QtR,

    You imply that all readings of a term are equal. I’m not sure I accept that – generally there exist accepted definitions which are rooted in historical or philosophical usage and should transcend polemic usage to a large extent. Shouldn’t a person who is sufficiently familiar with a topic be able to employ a term’s original or core meaning without having to use it as an ideological springboard at every turn?


  8. I don’t wish to imply that. That should be clear from my first comment. It’s like if I’m arguing with someone about what capitalism means and they think it means a free market and I wish for a free market then is there any point arguing about what capitalism means? (Okay well there is some) – We should be arguing about the implications of a free market.
    Do you remember that argument we had about marxism? I can get very hung up about these sort of things, but I think it’s important, like I said, not to get too hung up.

  9. QtR,

    if I’m arguing with someone about what capitalism means and they think it means a free market and I wish for a free market then is there any point arguing about what capitalism means? (Okay well there is some)

    This would suggest to me that one or both the arguers had a poor understanding of `capitalism’ or was using the term with a view to score ideological points rather than trying genuinely to agree on a definition of the term. A lot of the time when people say `capitalism’ they include a bunch of things which necessarily derive from or accompany capitalism the pure concept, and the confusion comes when two people include differing things in the bunch, which then become difficult to reconcile. My point in the comment above is that even the iconic capitalist and the iconic communist can agree, if they’re honest, on what the term `capitalism’ means in a pure sense – the disagreement comes when they try to discuss the implications of that meaning.

    Do you remember that argument we had about marxism?

    I seem to recall it being about communism (an implementation), not about Marxism (a theory). But yes, and I was trying to make an ideological point about it – not trying to define the issue dispassionately, but trying to argue my evaluation of its worth. That’s useful as well, but it’s a different category of argument.


  10. Some do think capitalism means a free market. So “pure” capitalism is something which we have yet to attain. Equating a free market with capitalism is a twentieth century redefinition and as I’ve already said multiple times wrong. To me free market capitalism is a contradiction in terms. Someone who uses capitalism in that sense is obviously going to have a wildly different conception of what a free market may look like or what free market policies are than someone, who uses capitalism correctly.
    On the issue of Marxism, not to bring it back up, but I thought it was an example of what Pablo is describing here. That is you were trying to conflate the Khmer Rouge with Marxism.

  11. QtR,

    Some do think capitalism means a free market. So “pure” capitalism is something which we have yet to attain.

    I mean `pure’ in definition, not in implementation. Waht I’m talking about is not a system as it operates but a concept in discourse. `Pure’ as opposed to `loaded’, though I accept that’s a poor dichotomy.

    On the issue of Marxism, not to bring it back up, but I thought it was an example of what Pablo is describing here. That is you were trying to conflate the Khmer Rouge with Marxism.

    I don’t want to relitigate either, but you’ve misunderstood the distinction between implementation and theory again. I noted that the worst excesses of socialism (KR, Stalinism, Maoism) as political implementations derived from the power transfer problem in Marxism (how to get the dictatorship representing the proletariat to relinquish their power?). That makes me disinclined to trust Marxism as the basis for a political/economic system in implementation. Nothing against the theory as a means of making sense of political and economic systems and the distribution of power in a society.


  12. I get your point – now. That’s exactly the reason why Anarchists of the time rejected Marxism and I said in that thread Marxism is not good in practice and its not good in theory. I think you’ve made it clear now and I don’t disagree with you.
    Even so Marx had little to say about what a dicatatorship of the proletariat would look like and you can get a better reading of Marx if you remember that Engels said of the Paris Commune “that is the dictatorship of the proletariat”. And it’s said that Engels was more authoritarian then Marx so to me it’s clear that there is a problem of power transfer and getting rid of that power but we can infer that Marx’s conception of the dictatorship of the proletariat would have been quite left in nature.

  13. Social phenomena are grounded in the material conditions of existence. Thus, they have discernible features, traits and characteristics, the combination of which makes them “observable.” These observable characteristics are “objective” in the sense that they are material and given. It is these objective traits that comprise the “concept” of the phenomenon being observed. Thus, for example, the “concept” of a political regime will necessarily include specific institutions, rules, mores and incumbents of political decision-making positions, as well as the relationship between them. This concept of regime differentiates it from “government,” which merely refers to current office-holders (or power-wielders) as opposed to the underpinning latticework upon which government authority is vested.
    Thus using the word “regime” when one is talking about the government of the day is an example of conceptual stretching (or vice versa).

    Of course, subjective assessments of objective phenomena will vary according to the vantage point of the observer (the blind men touching an elephant analogy is oft used to illustrate this point). But the two things are entirely different. One is a materially bounded (social) given; the other is an interpretation of what it is, how it came to be, its suitability, desirability, efficiency etc. It is in the confusion of the subjective and objective elements of social phenomena that much post-modern analysis is flawed, because it is premised on a stretch too far–the primacy of the interpretation (the social “construct”) over the objective features (the social “concept’) of a given phenomenon.

    There are terms that are less “objective” than what is described above, and which therefore can quite legitimately be the subject of different interpretations. Take, for example, the concept of “hegemony.” Originally formulated to describe ideological leadership leading to rule by consent within one nation-state (in contradistinction to Lenin’s notion of political domination), the term has been warped by Western international relations theorists to mean the domination of one state actor over others due to superiority in (economic, military, diplomatic) power variables–e.g., the US was the international “hegemon” in the 1990s. In doing so the IR theorists took the concept right back to Lenin (Marxism’s first IR theorist) by returning to domination as the basis for hegemony, rather than consent. But since the concept of “hegemony” is an interpretation in the first place, it is more malleable.

    As for terms like “Marxism” that cover an array of economic and political combinations, with some emphasizing the structural aspects and others emphasizing the superstructural aspects of a specific meshing of collective ownership and worker’s rule–that is a label, not a concept. It is meaningless for argumentative purposes.

    My post is focused not so much on varying interpretations of widely used concepts, but on the distortion of concepts that describe, define or refer to “objective” social phenomena such as regime types or economic models.

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