Collective construction of a concept

Created by: Luís Machado

Based on Dahlberg's theory of concept, and anchored in the pragmatism of Hjørland - in which the concepts are socially negotiated meanings - we present a definition for 'collective construction of a concept'. We point out the benefits of adopting a pluralist epistemological approach to their study and indicate a potential context for their application, the Wikipedia. As a space for collective bargaining of meanings, the Wikipedia study can bring relevant contributions to a community's understanding of a particular concept and how it evolves over time.

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Collective construction of a concept can be understood as the negotiation of a meaning represented in the form of written definitions in a collaborative way.  Although it can be understood as a reductionist view, we believe that these verbal externalizations are the ways in which a body of people can work through building a concept. We consider that this point of view fits in with Hjørland's view that "concepts are dynamically constructed and collectively negotiated meanings"[1].

There is no consensus in the study of concepts, what is their nature (mental representations or abstract entities?), or their constitution (bundles of features or they embody mental theories?). Different approaches have resulted in distinct theories of which stand out: the Classical Theory, the Prototype Theory, the Neoclassical Theory, the Theory-Theory, and Conceptual Atomism. All, according to Margolis and Laurence, present difficulties in explaining certain aspects involving concepts, among which, issues related to analyticity, compositionality or ignorance and error[2]. For these authors, concepts are mental representations and a theory with the necessary explanatory potential is only possible by “admits different types of conceptual structure while tying them together by maintaining that concepts have atomic cores”[3].

For the study of the collective construction of a concept as defined here, there are benefits in adopting a pluralist epistemological position associating the pragmatic positioning of Hjørland, based on the Theory of Theory, with Dahlberg's "theory of analytical concept of reference" within a neoclassical epistemic position. Dahlberg does not consider the influence of the social context in the formation of concepts, like Hjørland does, but takes it into account when it comes to their organization and representation[4]. In this perspective, Dahlberg's theory of concept approaches the position of Hjørland with respect to the representation of concepts, so that the theory provides a reference for the characterization, categorization and decomposition of concepts[5].  As for the social context, since, according to Hjørland, concepts "should be identified by studying discourses rather than by studying individual users or a priori principles"[1],  collective open-spaces such as Wikipedia have the appropriate characteristics to do this type study.

Wikipedia can be described as one of the "abstract social machines" advocated by Berners-Lee and Fischetti, in processes enabled by the World Wide Web where people do the creative work and the machines do the administrative counterparts[6]. The massive number of Wikipedia's collaborators (more than 32 million registered users) contributes to this being the most comprehensive project in the scope of Digital Humanities[7]. Considering that Wikipedia presents itself as a free encyclopedia where any Internet user can edit, it can be considered as a space where the collective bargaining of meanings occurs and it is therefore a privileged place for the diachronic study for a community's understanding of an concept in particular. 


  1. Hjørland, B.; Concept theory. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 2009, 60, 1519-1536, 10.1002/asi.21082.
  2. Margolis, E.; Laurence, S.. Concepts: Core readings; MIT Press: Cambridge, 1999; pp. 4-81.
  3. Laurence, S.; Margolis, E.. Concepts. In The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Mind; Warfield, T. A., Stich, S. P., Eds.; Blackwell’s: Malden, 2003; pp. 190–213.
  4. Arboit, A. E.; O processo de (re) construção da teoria do conceito no domínio de Organização do Conhecimento: uma visão dialógica. Scire 2012, 2(18), 129-134,
  5. Dahlberg, I.; A referent-oriented, analytical concept theory for INTERCONCEPT. Knowledge Organization 1978, 5, 142-151, 10.5771/0943-7444-1978-3-142.
  6. Berners-Lee, T.; Fischetti, M.. Weaving the Web: : The original design and ultimate destiny of the World Wide Web; Harper Collins: New York, 1999; pp. 157-175.
  7. Flores, P.; Is Wikipedia the largest-ever digital humanities project? Exploring an emerging relationship Available online: (accessed on Oct 25, 2018).