AEA365 | A Tip-a-Day by and for Evaluators



John Branch on Concepts

Greetings from Ann Arbor! My name is John Branch and I am a professor of marketing at the Ross School of Business, and a faculty associate at the Center for Russian, East European, & Eurasian Studies, both at the University of Michigan. I am also in the midst of my second doctoral degree, and Ed.D. in educational leadership, also at the University of Michigan.

For several years I have been interested in concepts… the concepts which we use, how we articulate them, how we link them together. You see, concepts serve critical functions in science. First, they allow us to describe the cosmos. Indeed, concepts are the essence of reality, the basic unit of human knowledge. Second, concepts are the building-blocks of theory. We link them together in order to understand and predict phenomena. Consequently, scientists have an enormous stake vested in concepts.

Lessons Learned:

  • When concepts are undeveloped, therefore, science suffers. That is to say, when a concept is immature, its contribution to science, with respect to both its descriptive powers and its role as a building-block of theory, is limited. It is through concept development that scientists make progress in achieving their intellectual goals.
  • Many scientists, however, do not have a good handle on their concepts. They bandy them about with little concern for their development. Worse still, they often adopt their concepts blindly and uncritically, perpetuating this conceptual immaturity, and, in some cases, even allowing the concepts to calcify, thereby limiting unwittingly scientific progress.

Hot Tip:

  • Ask yourself how confident you are with the concepts with which you work. Have you simply adopted this concept from the others naively? Is the consensus on this specific concept actually a flashing warning light about the complacency in my discipline?


  • Both the frameworks and philosophical discussion will serve you well, as you evaluate the concepts with which you work, and subsequently endeavor to raise their level of maturity.

Do you have questions, concerns, kudos, or content to extend this aea365 contribution? Please add them in the comments section for this post on the aea365 webpage so that we may enrich our community of practice. Would you like to submit an aea365 Tip? Please send a note of interest to aea365 is sponsored by the American Evaluation Association and provides a Tip-a-Day by and for evaluators.

· · ·


  • James Coyle · June 19, 2012 at 9:48 am

    Hi John,
    Thanks for the post…your comments remind me of my studies many moons ago (animal cognition) which originally got me interested in the elements of ‘concepts’ and their relevance for learning and teaching concepts. Perhaps not as grand as linking to ‘theory’ but reading your post prompted me to go back to see what the state of that literature was.

    *The main take away from the literature at that time was that for teaching and learning it was important to describe BOTH what the concept IS and what it is NOT to help aid learning. Interested in your thoughts on this as it applies to our instruction around Evaluation Training, etc.

    Sounds like you might have seen these old studies but I’ll share in case you haven’t because they are sort of fun…one take away from studies in animal cognition was that pigeons, for example, could learn “concepts” of different sorts and then generalize them to novel instances; they could distinguish different kinds of vehicles as different ‘concepts’ of ‘car-ness’ or ‘truck-ness’ (not sure what they would do with cross-overs!). The study I remember the most though was their ability to classify different ‘types/styles’ of paintings (such as distinguishing pictures Monet and Picasso).
    Interestingly I see some folks are still exploring this work decades later:
    (poor kids! having their art judged!)

    Anyway, thanks for the post…interesting to go back to the important topic of ‘concepts’.



    • John Branch · November 21, 2012 at 5:01 pm


      Thanks for the reply. This was actually the first time I returned to the site following my original posting. You are correct that there has been a significant amount of work done on that which is known as the categorical philosophy of concepts, especially in cognitive psychology. Medin and Smith, who were at Northwestern I think, had been particularly active in the field. Essentially, the categorical philosophy suggests that a concept is bounded by the criteria by which objects can be categorised. As such, it means that objects which do not meet the criteria are not categorised because they fall outside the boundary. The categorical philosophy has been sharply criticised in the literature, however, primarily because people have trouble identifying the definitive set of criteria, and because people have difficulty categorising different objects of the same conceptual criteria… a robin is more easily categorised as a bird than an ostrich or a chicken, for example. With respect to concept development, one popular ‘method’ by Klausmeier and Goodwin relies on the researcher to identify the criteria, give examples, and non-examples, etc. There is a great illustration of the method for an isosceles triangle. Let me know if I can send you some stuff. I have a paper under review right now which is entitled: Concepts and Concept Development: A Review.

      With best wishes,



Leave a Reply




To top