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Events, Issues and Concepts of Quebec History


Last revised:
23 August 2000

Concepts in Social Science and History

Claude Bélanger,
Department of History,
Marianopolis College

Concepts are born of the necessity that individuals have to organise the information they learn or to systematise the experiences they go through. The term derives from the Latin language (“conceptus”) which means to conceive. Thus, a concept is general idea, created by the mind from specific occurrences, whose purpose is to categorise objects or events that, despite their seeming singularity or uniqueness, have in fact a great deal in common. If the objects or the events were not categorised, they would all appear as a shapeless mass and it would be virtually impossible to learn anything from them.

We need to organise information so as to understand its relevance and significance, to be able to draw from past experience (memory), to construct new ideas, as well to analyse new situations.

In practice, concepts create classes of items out of what might otherwise appear as separate and individual components. When these components have characteristics in common, despite differing in details, we group them together and form a concept. The existence of the concept then permits us to understand more fully each component as well as to grasp immediately a reality not previously experienced. For example we may learn separately about dogs, cats and cows but as our knowledge of such creatures increases we inevitably arrive at the point where systematisation becomes necessary and the concept of animal is born. Animal is not a reality; it is a creation of the mind. Once we grasp what animals are all about, we may instantly begin to understand what a zebu is, even if we have never encountered one and do not know the word, as long as we are told that it is an animal. We might separately learn about tables, chairs, sofas but the process of learning will be facilitated if we arrive at the concept of furniture.

When formulating concepts, it is vital to avoid the pitfalls of stereotyping in elevating single characteristics to the rank of the typical and thus the general, or overgeneralizing by creating categories from too few examples.

Thus, it is inevitable that we use concepts. The Greek philosopher Socrates was among the first to bring the universal elements of concepts, and the knowledge that may be derived from them, to be accepted. The Sophists that preceded him had drawn the conclusion that the wide variety of experiences and perceptions that individuals encountered demonstrated that universal truth or knowledge could not exist. Rather, Socrates showed that elements that are true for all people can be arrived at and accepted and that the true quest of science was to uncover and demonstrate these.

For a long time the discipline of history, with philosophy among the oldest of the fields of knowledge, attempted to avoid the use of concepts. In consequence, the studies were inevitably descriptive and rarely produced a satisfactory understanding of events or issues. In time the discipline evolved and developed concepts specific to its objects and, as well, borrowed from other disciplines when they developed concepts appropriate to the study of history.

Key concepts of history are causes, consequences, time/chronology, revolution, civilisation, West, Zeitgeist [the “spirit of the time”], world view, Quiet Revolution, etc. From other disciplines of the Social Sciences, history has borrowed heavily. From sociology: class, society, modernisation, family, etc. From political science: power, state, political system, etc. From anthropology: culture, ethnocentrism, racism, etc. From economics: production, demand, etc. From Geography: region, migration etc. From psychology: personality.

© 1998 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College