The Problem of Definitions

November 24, 2010

I’ve been doing a lot of teaching recently – hence the absence of postings – and this has been confronting me with the issue of definitions ie : public diplomacy, strategic communications, soft power, information operations.  Students have to wrestle with different understandings of these terms.  From a pedagogical point of view this is good but thinking about this leads me to a broader conclusion.

A  problem for scholarship in the PD studies area is the willingness to let the field be defined by organizational definitions of what it is we are studying.  Government organizations develop definitions of things that reflect amongst other things: current policy priorities, turf wars, aspirations, defence of budgets and the latest intellectual fashions not academic rigour or clarity.  These definitions are essentially political: can all the different interests involved actually live with the compromises involved?  The result is definitions that lack intellectual coherence and yoke together different ideas.   Organizational practices  are often seriously at odds with the definitions.  From an academic point of view an organization’s definition of public diplomacy (or anything else) has to be taken as ‘this is the way that organization x defines concept y at a particular moment in time’ rather than a definitive statement of what the concept really is.  The issue for the scholar is then to explain why organization x has that definition and the implications of that definition.

From a scholarly point of view public diplomacy and related terms have to be seen as umbrella concepts that cover a range of activities that differ across time and across countries.   If we are to develop a broader understanding of what PD institutions do, what works and why it works we can’t allow what we study to be defined by definitional trade offs arrived at in interagency working groups.


One comment

  1. See my related comment on the definition of PD:

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