Conceptual engineering: a tool to help think tanks reshape the world

20 June 2023

As the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the globe, governments implemented ‘social distancing’ measures to slow the spread of the virus. However, the term itself can be misleading.

In reality, all that is necessary to reduce transmission is physical distancing, and modern digital technologies mean we can still socialise while being physically distant. By framing these measures as ‘social distancing,’ governments sent the message that we must distance ourselves from our loved ones and community. And studies have shown that this led to negative psychological impact (increased distress, anxiety, depression, and panic), thereby hindering our ability to cope with the crisis and proportionally increasing our tendency to break the sanitary rules.

So, could we have done better?

In this blog, we explore the method of conceptual engineering and how, by utilising it, policy research institutes can think, communicate, and act more strategically in the context of public policy decision-making.


What is conceptual engineering?

Conceptual engineering is concerned with the process of assessing and improving our concepts towards specific ends. The four main strategies used by conceptual engineers are innovation, revision, replacement and elimination. For example:

  • The new European data protection policy innovated the concept of ‘data subjects’ by linking personal data to personal identity in debates around data privacy.
  • 33 countries around the world have successfully revised the concept of marriage to promote equal access to marital status across sexual orientations.
  • ‘Global South’ has now largely replaced ‘Third World’ or ‘Developing Countries’ to shift focus from developmental difference to geopolitical power relations.
  • Following the philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah’s seminal work, some social activists have advocated to eliminate the concept of ‘race’.

The above examples are only implicit instances of conceptual engineering processes. The theory of conceptual engineering provides methodological guidance to make them more efficient and effective. But let’s consider concepts first.

Concepts and think tanks  

Concepts — that is pairs formed by a word and a meaning — play a significant role in driving change processes, whether intentionally or unintentionally. The concept of social distancing above is an example of how a poorly designed concept can lead to unintended side effects and harmful consequences in the implementation of public health policies. This is where conceptual engineering comes in to help think tanks identify and design optimal concepts for better results, particularly, in the context of disruptive situations.

Moreover, conceptual engineering can facilitate knowledge translation across sectors by helping think tanks propose the right concepts to ensure that different stakeholders understand the same thing. For instance, there was a mismatch between the expert intention behind ‘social distancing’ and the public’s perception of the term, which resulted in confusion and resistance to the measure.

In addition, think tanks need to pay attention to framing, as Aidan Muller from Cast From Clay points out: “Policymakers don’t want facts—they want frameworks which help them understand the world and make decisions. If think tanks don’t engage in narrative-setting, they are forever relinquishing the framing of their research to their audiences—media, politicians, activists—who have their own agendas and little interest in the integrity of the evidence.” By using conceptual engineering as a basic form of strategic framing, think tanks can effectively communicate their research and policy solutions for desired results.

Re-engineering ‘social distancing’

Now that we understand the power of concepts and the potential negative impacts of using defective ones, how can we do better than ‘social distancing’? By applying the principles of conceptual engineering, we can design and test new concepts that better achieve our desired outcomes. Here’s a six-stage, non-linear, and iterative model we can follow:

A six-stage model

  1. Focus

Start by focusing on the end-goal and specifying the concept’s purpose and key requirements. In the case of ‘social distancing’, the government wanted to reduce COVID-19 transmission. However, there was no consideration of the concept’s requirements, that is, what the concept should look like and what it should do. At the onset of the pandemic outbreak, it was critical for the concept to accurately communicate what it is people must do, while, importantly, not indirectly impacting people’s mental health.

  1. Analysis

Describe the current concepts in use. In our case, social distancing had been around since the 2002-2003 SARS outbreak. At that time, presence and location were conflated. In the meantime, the widespread use of digital technologies has disconnected presence from location, which means that one can be socially proximate while being physically distant. As a result, the phrase has become a misnomer: one can practice social distancing and yet be socially proximate.

  1. Evaluation

Next, evaluate the functionality of our target concept against the purpose and requirements. The phrase ‘social distancing’ fails against both benchmarks: it doesn’t accurately convey the desired behavioural change (that is, physical distancing), and it contributed to a negative impact on people’s mental health. It therefore needs to be re-engineered.

  1. Design

Now, aim to improve the functionality of our target concept against our purpose and requirements. Considering how badly the original concept fared in our evaluation, we should opt for replacing it, not revising it. And drawing on our analysis of the concepts in use, we could propose ‘physical distancing’ or ‘distant socialising’ as possible surrogates.

  1. Test

Test the replacement concept prototypes. Here, we might discover that ‘physical distancing’ is more accurate but doesn’t carry the same sense of urgency to change behaviour. ‘Distant socialising’, on the other hand, could empower people to learn a new social skill set, but may not be immediately understandable. Thus, we must assess trade-offs against our original requirement benchmarks.

  1. Implementation

The final stage is to introduce the new chosen concept among your target user groups in the relevant context for use, for instance, by co-opting those actors that matter when people decide about what they should think and do.

Of course, this is just a quick teaser for how conceptual engineering can help to tackle global policy challenges and inform decision-making. I am a conceptual engineer and if you want to know more, please get in touch!