Concept Clarification for Knowledge Development

By Beard, Margaret T. | Journal of Theory Construction and Testing, Winter 2000 | Go to article overview

Concept Clarification for Knowledge Development


Beard, Margaret T., Journal of Theory Construction and Testing


An important step in the process of developing concepts that are useful and meaningful is clarification. While clarification is not an end-point, it is a critical step in the process of developing knowledge related to concepts of interest. Clarification is accomplished by analyzing the common use of the concept through the ways in which the concept is expressed. This makes possible the identity of the cluster of attributes that constitute the concept and assist in the definition of the concept. Thus more effective use of the concept is available. A clearly defined concept enhances the possibility of classification or characterization of phenomena thereby allowing one to evaluate the strengths and limitations of the concept as variations are introduced and tested. The developmental process of the concept moves toward a more useful stage reflective of a more contemporary context for its' use following clarification.

The philosophical foundations of concept clarification and development probably began as early Greek thinkers gained insight into the unanswerable questions of human existence. For Aristotle, the process of thinking (or knowing) was a specific human quality, an act of supremacy, that sets humans apart from all other creatures. Concepts are abstract ideas with individual perception involved in their formation. The reasoning ability of humans is the highest good with concepts as universal essences (Aristotle 1984 Trans.). The essences represent specific entities, events or occurrences. Early philosophers in concept clarification required that concepts have rigid and distinct boundaries, have stated definitions in terms of necessary and sufficient conditions, and have correspondence between concepts and empirical reality.

Grounded theory is a useful methodology for the generation of new concepts. The emerging concepts can then be further refined and clarified with a literature review. The goal of the literature review is to gain a comprehensive command of the language dealing with the concept and to obtain a deep grasp of its' use across disciplines and time.

Cognition constitutes thinking or conceptualization that can be discussed and observed through its outward manifestations. Wilson (1963) characterizes concept analysis as a technique that aids in the use of clear thinking and communication. In his book Thinking With Concepts, it is explained that the book was to be worked through by students in an effort to gain skill in answering questions of a conceptual nature. Likewise, Hans Selye in the book From Dream to Discovery explains "how to think" to reach a conceptual goal (1964 ).

Historically, analysis has been to define the concept in terms of critical attributes or the essence of the entity. This is presented as a set of conditions necessary and sufficient to delineate the domain and boundaries of the concept. In this view, the concept is examined apart from context or relationship with other concepts.

Theoretical exploration of phenomena allows one to gain visionary conceptualization that challenges conventional wisdom. To explore the insights offered by the theories and the testing enhances knowledge development. One can specifically make decisions with theoretical lenses for exploration. Then the integrative insights gained from the theories and related research can be cast into a more complete model with testable propositions for future empirical work. The generalizability of the insights to other situational contexts enhances the theory level of development. An example of theoretical exploration is the work of Barringer and Mulkovich (1998). They explored theoretical explanations of managers' decision about flexible benefits plans. Using four theoretical lenses, they examined the adoption and design of the benefit plans. …

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