Concept structures and the far right

The far right has often been described as a concept that is hard to define. Although there is still controversy around its three basic components, i.e. the intension (number of defining attributes), the extension (number of empirical phenomena), and the term (the label) that best characterizes it, we should not neglect the fact that much progress has been made over the last two decades in clearing this conceptual muddle to some extent. This is a welcome development, of course, because concepts play an important role in research and determine the quality of outcomes. However, taking into consideration the current volatile global political environment and the tendency of academics to – rightly – immerse in dialectical battles with the aim to ‘order reality,’ as Max Weber[i] would probably reiterate today, it is wishful thinking to expect a unanimous agreement on the meaning of the far right. What we should expect instead is more transparency with regard to the process of knowledge production and the logic of concept structures, in particular.

The existing literature identifies several approaches to concept formation. In his influential book Social Science Concepts: A User’s Guide, Gary Goertz discusses two main diametrically opposed approaches, 1. the necessary and sufficient condition structure, and 2. the family resemblance structure. The former assumes that concepts can be defined by individually necessary and jointly sufficient attributes, while the latter is anchored in the idea that a concept comprises only sufficient attributes; this means, in short, that some of its instances do not share the same sets of elements. Alternatively, if there are valid ontological reasons to believe that the previous two structures cannot reflect the internal composition of the concept accurately, there are more options that can be of use such as the oft-cited radial category.[ii]

In the field of far right politics, what appears to be the most suitable approach is the classical ‘necessary and sufficient condition’ structure. To quote the words of renowned scholar of the radical right Elisabeth Carter,[iii] this happens ‘because the properties that make up the concept’s intension can be hierarchically ordered, boundaries can be drawn (albeit with care), and all the referents do share the concept’s defining features.’ However, from the discussion so far, it is not clear how we can differentiate between varying types of far right organisations. It is now widely accepted, for example, that we should not subsume the contemporary variants of the far right under the label of fascism, as it would be misleading and would distort our understanding of the reasons why this phenomenon occurs. Thus, in order to organise our thoughts methodically and at the same time enhance transparency with regard to the logic of concept structures, we should briefly familiarise ourselves with the notion of the ‘ladder of abstraction’ (or ladder of generality) that has been examined extensively in the pioneering work of Giovanni Sartori.[iv]

The ladder of abstraction can be viewed as a hierarchical, taxonomic system that orders the constitutive elements of concepts into categories that differ in their extent of empirical coverage. More precisely, at the top of the ladder stands the category that has both the lowest intension and highest extension (according to the classical view of concepts, this is an inverse relationship). Since intension determines extension, when adding new attributes we move down the ladder to sub-types of the primary category that have more elements and cover fewer empirical cases. In doing so, we achieve conceptual differentiation. On the other hand, if the aim is to avoid conceptual stretching, we have the option to move up the ladder of abstraction, reaching levels with broader empirical coverage.

Having said this, the ladder of abstraction is a useful conceptual schema that helps us to better comprehend ideological variation within the far right family. To give an example from my research on reciprocal radicalisation in the UK, I define the far right as the amalgamation of three ideological characteristics: nationalism, xenophobia, and authoritarianism.[v] In this view, informed by Cas Mudde’s book Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe, the far right (see figure 1 below) is the primary, overarching category that stands at the top of the ladder and includes diverse groups that can be inspired by the ideas of ethno-pluralism (i.e. the idea of self-governing regions divided by ethnicity) or Nazism, among others.

Based on this conceptual representation, one may wonder: what is the difference between the radical right and extreme right, and why do they take separate paths? Although both variants share the three ideological elements mentioned above, crudely speaking, the extreme right opposes procedural democracy (extremism), whereas the radical right challenges only some of its key aspects and values (radicalism[vi]). Therefore, by adding extremism to the primary category, the far right, we create a new sub-type that consists of nationalism, xenophobia, authoritarianism, and extremism; fascist and several white-supremacist groups are typical examples of the extreme right. The radical right, on the other hand, follows a different path, since the ideological trait we attach to the primary category  is radicalism. The composition of this sub-type is: nationalism, xenophobia, authoritarianism, and radicalism. Along the same line of reasoning, the populist radical right, which is the most successful far right variant in Western Europe since the 1980’s, constitutes a sub-type of the radical right. This observation shows more clearly that populism is a defining characteristic of the populist radical right and not the far right – with its more esoteric appeals to ethno-nationalist ideologies.

To conclude, the ladder of abstraction allows us to clarify the conceptual boundaries of political actors that explain reality through far right ideologies. Most importantly, visualising the relationship between primary and secondary categories increases transparency, and helps to avoid unnecessary conceptual confusion. Granted, in this CARR blog I have largely relied on the work of Cas Mudde, but this should not be necessarily the case. There might be academics and practitioners who prefer other terms and assign more weight to sub-dimensions that have not been mentioned explicitly here, such as the role of racism. However, assuming again that the starting point of analysis is the classical view of concept formation, the logic remains the same. Adding racism leads to new sub-categories, either of the far right or the radical right and/or extreme right, that comprise a unique combination of ideological traits and ‘distinguish A from whatever is not-A.[vii]

Lastly, in a future blog I will discuss how ‘fuzzy logic’ improves the conceptual schema presented above, which partly explains my decision to use nationalism and xenophobia in my study of the far right and not the original, composite term nativism.

Mr Andreas Dafnos is an Early Career Fellow at CARR and a doctoral candidate at the University of Sheffield. His profile can be found here:

© Andreas Dafnos. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors’ and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).

[i]       Weber, M. (1949). The methodology of the social sciences. (E. A. Shils & H. A. Finch, Trans.). Glencoe, Illinois: The Free Press.

[ii]      Collier, D., & Mahon, J. E. (1993). Conceptual “stretching” revisited: Adapting categories in comparative analysis. American Political Science Review, 87(04), 845–855 [Download PDF]. Also, if you are interested in fuzzy logic and the radial category structure: Quaranta, M. (2013). Fuzzy set theory and concepts: A proposal for concept formation and operationalization. Comparative Sociology, 12(6), 785–820 [Download PDF].

[iii]     Carter, E. (2018). Right-wing extremism/radicalism: Reconstructing the concept. Journal of Political Ideologies, 23(2), 157–182 [Download PDF].

[iv]    Sartori, G. (1970). Concept misformation in comparative politics. American Political Science Review, 64(04) [Download PDF].

[v]     Similarly, Ravndal and Bjørgo have defined the far right as ‘acceptance of social inequality, authoritarianism, and nativism.’ In my research, the first ideological criterion, i.e. social inequality, is implied in the term far right, while nativism is split into its two constitutive features, i.e. nationalism and xenophobia. Ravndal, J. A., & Bjørgo, T. (2018). Investigating terrorism from the extreme right: A review of past and present research, 12(6), 18 [Download PDF].

[vi]    Golder, M. (2016). Far right parties in Europe. Annual Review of Political Science, 19(1), 477–497 [Download PDF].

[vii]   Sartori, G. (1984). Guidelines for concept analysis. In G. Sartori (Ed.), Social science concepts: A systematic analysis. Beverly Hills: Sage.

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