Avoiding concept stretching in ‘euroscepticism’

The idea of concept stretching is not a new one, and certainly predates Satori’s seminal piece on the topic from 1970, at least in practical terms. However, it’s an idea that has continued relevance for all researchers, especially those in the social sciences. it was something I was reminded of this week, during some workshop sessions at the CRonEM annual conference, here at Surrey.

It’s rare that I can bring so much unhappiness to a room in such short order, but my suggestion that we might revisit definitional and classificational questions in the study of euroscepticism achieved just that (imagine a mixture of heads in hands, sighs, wide-eyed staring and even one ‘oh, please no’).  There has always been this problem in the study of euroscepticism: we cannot agree what ‘euroscepticism’ actually is and we don’t appear to be resolving it anytime soon.

This is not unique to the field – I think of far-right/radical-right (sic) scholars having much the same difficulty, while it’s a first-year undergraduate staple to be asking to define democracy. However, euroscepticism faces a number of particular problems.

Firstly, one of the few points of agreement is that there is no one euroscepticism, but rather many eurosceptic approaches and critiques: all that holds them together is some form of negativity towards the European Union. As such, it’s evidently not an ‘-ism’ at all, in an ideological sense, but rather a characteristic or feature. This one reason why few eurosceptics describe themselves as such.

Secondly – and partly because of the first point – it is very wide-ranging indeed. From party politics, to public opinion, to the media, to individual behaviours and heuristics, ‘euroscepticism’ is used to describe a vast range of attitudes, behaviours and effects. One of our paper-givers, Markus Ketola, talked from a sociological viewpoint of using Boudieu’s concept of habitus to frame our work, with it’s ideas of dispositions and positions, but even then we still face a complex, multi-dimensional space.

Consequently, and thirdly, we find that the label of euroscepticism is applied far beyond its original application. Many political utterances that would once have been been considered as part of the give and take of building European integration are now framed as ‘sceptical’: As John FitzGibbon noted, we might more accurately describe such practices – much more common since the eurozone crisis – as ‘Euroalternativism’ than as scepticism, being as they are pro-systemic.

My personal view has always been one of disliking the label, since it doesn’t have any real meaning: I’ve tended to talk of ‘opposition to the EU’ instead, with its notion of meaningful action, rather than diffuse unhappiness.

However, during the past year, I have thought more about the definitional aspect and I am determined to find a useful way through the maze. Wish me luck.