On the Usefulness of Concepts

Posted by: John Stewart on August 18, 2011 2:51 pm

Concepts are the mental integration of multiple aspects of reality that may come from our current perception or from earlier-formed concepts.  While seminal concepts are generally viewed as being derived from the processing of direct experience and discovery, the ongoing process of concept formation, where a person learns to sort specific experiences into general rules or classes, is commonly depicted as the classification of new or existing into some type of hierarchical structure.  The models described in the literature vary and include (but are not limited to) depictions of concepts as being organized around: rules of inclusion and exclusion; prototypes (that possess a central tendency); exemplars; and explanations, or outlines, of the experience.  While the space here does not allow in depth explanation of these theories, all agree that awareness of the hierarchical distinctions being used can help guide behaviour in new situations.

Concepts can be well-constructed or poorly constructed.  The latter are sometimes called fuzzy concepts.  Unlike computers that use strict binary logic gates, the human brain is capable of making neural connections (forming concepts) using associations that may not be logical and that connect information in non-linear ways.  The brain can also interpret the same phenomenon from several different points of reference, leading to the possibility of different concepts about the same entity.  We can imagine that the concept for “police officer” varies depending on if you are a little boy who is lost, a drug dealer, or a lawyer.  Experience, emotion, values systems, and self-concepts would all contribute in their own way to the conceptualization of a police officer, depending on which of these people you might be.  One way to make poorly constructed or fuzzy concepts more clear is to test their application in real life situations.

As an example, I attended the U2 Concert at Magnetic Hill in Moncton a couple of weeks ago.  For the week prior to the concert I was seriously considering trying to sell my tickets because I didn’t think I wanted to go through the hassle of everything involved in getting there, preparing for possible rainy weather, and negotiating crowds before and after.  In short I was weighing these inconveniences against my concept of an outdoor concert (which was largely based on a couple of previous experiences at smaller venues with lesser known bands).  I recall thinking, in the moments just prior to U2 taking the stage, how happy I was that I had decided to attend this concert.  As I looked around in awe at the 75,000 people present, the huge stage still reverberating with the incredible talents of Arcade Fire (one of the opening acts), and felt the restless anticipation of the crowd, I became very aware of how inadequate my previous concept of an “outdoor concert” really was.

We believe the same dynamic impacts the concepts we have about self and occupations.  A well-formed concept is one that is differentiated based on a variety of experiences, considers the impact of emotion and values, and is grounded in an adequate context of knowledge.  This belief has significant implications for how we, as practitioners, implement activities such as job shadowing and initiatives like Take Your Child to Work Day.

By: Jeff Landine and John Stewart

*The views expressed by our authors are personal opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views of the CCPA

1 comment on “On the Usefulness of Concepts”

  1. Wusu Conteh says:

    I found your explanation quite insightful for my work on looking at the usefulness and problematic nature of conceptualization. Your example has been able to help me make a good analysis of the concepts

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