David Collier and Steven Levitsky, “Democracy with adjectives: Conceptual innovation in comparative politics”, World Politics 49 (1997), pp. 430-451.

Main Argument: In a critique of poor and inconsistent operationalisation of abstract terms such as “regime” or “democracy”, Collier and Levitsky advance the use of qualitative categorisation, such as that of Sartori or Dahl, as a way to ground abstract terms in empirical research and develop procedural terms to create a common nomenclature for political scientists. The authors argue that the misuse of labels through “diminished subtypes” and “dismissive subtypes” is analytically problematic because it does not allow for the proper differentiation of terms, and substantively problematic because it often unconsciously misleads readers by creating normative implications with vocabulary.


Method: Using Sartori’s “ladder of generality” as a base, the authors evaluate conceptual innovations in the field establishing a new framework that distinguishes how abstract/precise terms are (up/down the ladder of generality) and where they fit into the overall concept (shifting the overarching concept).


Important Insight: The authors highlight that contested definitions for broad concepts such as “regime” and “nation” often require frameworks, and moreover, adherence to these frameworks in order to avoid “definitional gerrymandering” or the use of a term for convenience and methodological “tidiness” rather than actual representation of fact.



== Notes ==


–     Given the risk of growing conceptual confusion, the earlier effort to standardize usage must now be supplemented by assessing the structure of meaning that underlies these diverse forms of the concept

–     Goal of the article is twofold: to make more comprehensible the complex structure of the alternative strategies of conceptual innovation that have emerged and to examine the trade-offs among these strategies

–     Focuses on procedural, minimalist definitions (uses democracy as the example for this article)


Sartori’s Strategy: (see figure on page 436 for clear illustration)

–     Sartoris goal is to show how conceptual differentiation can be increased by moving down the ladder of generality to concepts that have more defining attributes and fit a narrower range of cases

–     Moving down the ladder of generality provides useful differentiation (allowing for use of subtypes – i.e. Parliamentary democracy)

–     However, subtypes may leave the analyst vulnerable to conceptual stretching

–     Climbing the ladder of generality helps to avoid conceptual stretching, however, it leads to a a loss of conceptual differentiation

–     Taken together, Sartoris two strategies can advance one or the other of these goals, but not both at once


Diminished Subtypes:

–     An alternative strategy of conceptual innovation, that of creating \”diminished\” subtypes

–     Diminished Subtypes: in contrast to the classical sub types discussed above, diminished subtypes are not full instances of the root definition of \”democracy\” employed by the author who presents the subtype

–     Because diminished sub types represent an incomplete form of democracy, they might be seen as having fewer defining attributes, however, the distinctive feature of diminished subtypes is that they generally identify specific attributes of democracy that are missing thereby establishing the diminished character of the subtype, at the same time that they identify other attributes of democracy that are present (see page 439 for examples if this isn’t clear)

–     Diminished subtypes are a useful means to avoid conceptual stretching in cases that are less than fully democratic


–     It is important that scholars avoid \”definitional gerrymandering\” in the sense of introducing a new definition every time they encounter a somewhat anomalous case

–     Scholars should impose constructive limits on précising definitions


Concluding Summary: observed that Sartoris strategies of (1) moving down the ladder of generality to classical subtypes of democracy and (2) moving up the ladder to classical subtypes of regime can usefully serve either to increase differentiation or to avoid conceptual stretching, but they cannot do both simultaneously. These two goals can be achieved simultaneously, however, by (3) creating diminished subtypes, (4) precising the definition of democracy by adding defining attributes, and (5a) shifting the overarching concept as a means of lowering the standard. By contrast (5b), shifting the overarching concept to raise the standard for democracy does not serve to avoid conceptual stretching vis-a-vis the concept of a democratic regime, but it does introduce new differentiation.


Critique: The use of diminished subtypes has almost overrun discussion on many prevalent topics such as democracy and regime change – so much so, that often the literature on democracy can barely reconcile itself with all of its current use of the term “democracy”; the authors should contribute their thoughts on how to recapture these abstract terms.