On (travelling) concepts

by annawahloo

Elvis o elipsbordetJaguar E-type detaljrobinson_crusoe

In the course of study, how strictly should particular concept definitions be made? And how much should already established concepts be adhered to? Literature professor Anders Palm claims that the vision of the author and the mission of the researcher are to articulate the best possible meaning of words. Poetry wants to free meaning. Science wants to fix meaning. But the language of science is like any other language: open to transformation (Boström 2000: 261). Cultural theorist and critic Mieke Bal addresses travelling concepts, for example concepts that travel between disciplines or between science and culture, and their semantic change in Travelling concepts in the humanities: A rough guide from 2002. She writes that concepts are not fixed. “They travel – between disciplines, between individual scholars, between historical periods, and between geographically dispersed academic communities. Between disciplines, their meaning, reach, and operational value differ” (2002: 24). To avoid misunderstandings in communication with others, Bal argues that these processes of change need to be assessed before, during and after each “trip”. Inherited concepts in Fine Arts are all too often used without reflection on theoretical frameworks in which the concepts first were used (Boström 2000: 7-17). It is important to consider that the concepts might have gone through devaluations through time or have changed their original meaning. So be aware!

According to Taeke De Jung and Jürgen Rosemann (2005) intensive defining is not always the right thing to do, particularly not in studies by design, design and design research, as “designers show a distinctive creativeness for the explanation of their designs, neologisms like that empirical researchers simply dismiss as of no use in their jargon” (2005: 35).  They claim, nevertheless, that it is of great importance that these concepts are taken seriously as they show the inadequacy of empirical jargon and can herald a change in focus demanding another concept definition.

As concepts are barely ever used in precisely the same sense their usages can “be debated and referred back to the different traditions and schools from which they emerged, thus allows an assessment of the validity of their implications” (Bal 2002:29).

The reading have made me realized that concepts have a potential in methodology. Defining and analyzing a concept can be a useful way of defining a research problem or phenomenon under study. To do that, it is important to reveal all the problems with the concept you are about to use. Give an account of its history, reflect upon former definitions, and check its etymology and the theoretical context in which it emerged. When that is done – make the concept your own.

While groping to define, provisionally and partly, what a particular concept may mean, we gain insight into what it can do. It is in the grouping that the valuable work lies. […] The grouping is a collective endeavor. Even those concepts that are tenuously established, suspended between questioning and certainty, hovering between ordinary word and theoretical tool, constitute the backbone of the interdisciplinary study of culture – primarily because of their potential intersubjectivity. Not because they mean the same thing for everyone, but because they don’t” (Bal 2002: 11).


Bal, Mieke. (2002). “Concept”. Travelling concepts in the humanities: A rough guide.

Boström, Hans-Olof. (ed.). (2000). ”Inledning”. Tolv begrepp inom de estetiska vetenskaperna) [Twelve concepts in Fine Arts].

De Jung, Taeke and Rosemann, Jürgen. (2005). “Naming components and concepts”. Ways to study and research: urban architectural and technical design.