The purpose of this roundtable is to place the most important resource available to social scientists, namely the concept, under scrutiny by discussing the changes they undergo to be able to render phenomena intelligible in different settings. The standard assumption according to which concepts, when properly used, are independent of context has come under massive critique, especially within the context of postcolonial and decolonial critiques. By drawing attention to the normative foundations of the Enlightenment, i.e. the ways in which it has been complicit to an imperial European project, critical scholars have cast doubt on its epistemic assumption while at the same time inviting scholars to reflect more deeply on how they go about their work.
The project “Reversing the Gaze” that brings together the scholars at the universities of Basel, Zurich and Edinburg as well as the Graduate Institute Geneva confronts this issue in a direct way and serves as a point of departure for this roundtable. It deploys concepts used to account for phenomena in non-European settings in Europe in order to explore the epistemological and methodological implications of turning the gaze traditionally directed at the Rest towards the West. Some of these implications bear on questions concerning whether concept use, scope and meaning change fundamentally according to who deploys them, where and under what circumstances. Other implications refer to the job done by concepts, i.e. whether they are called upon to produce descriptions of the world, or whether the deployment of concepts itself produces the world which concepts describe. Yet other implications raise questions about the conditions of possibility of a scientific language consisting of free-floating conceptual vocabularies.
The roundtable will bring together scholars from different disciplinary and research context backgrounds to reflect on these issues. The overall focus is on the key idea concerning whether concepts are hopelessly tied to context, bearer and normative assumptions. Concepts are present everywhere, even in the conditions of possibility of what the theme of the VAD conference, “reciprocal perspectives”, sets out to do. Perspectives are particular combinations of concepts that both speak to specific settings and structure places of enunciation. To reciprocate perspectives is, perhaps, to unravel these combinations, lay them bare and promote a reflection on barriers to communication across disciplinary and cultural boundaries. The idea of concepts without borders aims precisely at exploring this potential by inviting panellists to lead the way.