essentially contested concepts: yes, but is it art?

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There are few points of agreement in social theory. Most concepts have a ‘ramshackle transportability’ which requires them to remain in a state of perpetual motion. They are argued over, disputed with the occasional temporary settlement – which is too soon set in motion again when yet another theorist arrives – compellingly – at a different set of conclusions or indeed asks a different set of previously unasked questions. This is a creative tension that provides a ‘prophylactic as well as a provocation’ to generate new thinking.

In 1955 Gallie developed the notion of essentially contested concepts, defined below:


Gallie, W. B. (1955, January). Essentially contested concepts. In Proceedings of the Aristotelian society (pp. 167-198).

In order to count as essentially contested, a concept must possess the following characteristics:

(I) it must be appraisive in the sense that it signifies or accredits some kind of valued achievement.
(II) This achievement must be of an internally complex character,for all that its worth is attributed to it as a whole.
(III) Any explanation of its worth must therefore include reference to the respective contributions of its various parts or features; yet prior to experimentation there is nothing absurd or contradictory in any one of a number of possible rival descriptions of its total worth, one such description setting its component parts or features in one order of importance, a second setting them in a second order, and so on. In fine, the accredited achievement is initially variously describable.
(IV) The accredited achievement must be of a kind that admits of considerable modification in the light of changing circumstances; and such modification cannot be prescribed or predicted in advance. For convenience I shall call the concept of any such achievement ” open ” in character.’ These seem to me to be the four most important necessary conditions to which any essentially contested concept must comply. But they do not define what it is to be a concept of this kind. For this purpose we should have to say not only that different persons or parties adhere to different views of the correct use of some concept but
(V) that each party recognizes the fact that its own use of it is contested by those of other parties, and that each party must have at least some appreciation of the different criteria in the light of which the other parties claim to be applying the concept in question. More simply, to use an essentially contested concept means to use it against other uses and to recognize that one’s own use of it has to be maintained against these other uses. Still more simply, to use an essentially contested concept means to use it both aggressively and defensively.
(VI) the derivation of any such concept from an original exemplar whose authority is acknowledged by all the contestant users of the concept, and
(VII) the probability or plausibility, in appropriate senses of these terms, of the claim that the continuous competition for acknowledgement as between the contestant users of the concept, enables the original exemplar’s achievement to be sustained and/or developed in optimum fashion.

I have used Gallie’s (1955) notion of an essentially contested concept a great deal, particularly with reference to defining educational quality:

Quality: an essentially contested concept

Introduced in 2001, the Common Inspection Framework (CIF) provided an authoritative account of quality. It did not, however, end contestation, but is an aspect of continuing contestation. Prior to the CIF, teachers and managers worked within frameworks that determined the conduct of their professional lives. They had (and maintain) long-term views of quality, driven by their motivations for entering and remaining in the profession. These versions of what the sector is for, its purpose, are quite distinct from the short-term view of a government appointee professionally committed to a large-scale political project. My suggestion is that quality is a suitable exemplar of Gallie’s (1955) ‘essentially contested concept’. Gallie was concerned with what could and what could not be considered as art – yet the framing he provides is of enormous value in developing a line of thought. An ‘essentially contested concept’ – to achieve its status – must convey desirable connotations. It must be internally complex with the weighting attached to its various components varied, yet desirability attributed to the whole. The desirability of this contested state can remain constant, but its features are required to change in the light of experience. Different stakeholders must be prepared to assert that their version, their interpretation of the term as more truthful than other versions. To maintain its contested momentum, the desirable state requires an original exemplar whose authority is acknowledged by all contestants.

Dennis (2012) Quality: an ongoing conversation over time, Journal of Vocational Education & Training, 64:4, 511-527,


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