The Use of Concepts: Choosing and Unfolding Concepts in PhD Theses


The Use of Concepts: Choosing and Unfolding Concepts in PhD Theses

Bent Meier Sørensen, Professor, Department of Management, Politics & Philosophy, CBS

Justine Grønbæk Pors, Associate Professor, Department of Management, Politics & Philosophy, CBS

Stefan Schwartzkopf, Associate Professor, Department of Management, Politics & Philosophy, CBS

Kaspar Villadsen, Professor (mso), Department of Management, Politics & Philosophy, CBS

Course coordinator
Kaspar Villadsen

Only PhD students can participate in the course.

Participation requires submission of a short paper (see more below). Papers must be in English and deadline is 15th May 2023.

It is a precondition for receiving the course diploma that the PhD student attends the whole course.

The course will provide the participants with:

a) An introduction to key epistemological discussions around the use of concepts in the humanities and social sciences. We will among other things discuss different approaches to the use of concepts, such as ‘the representational approach’, ‘conceptual activist’, and the reconfiguration and development of concepts

b) The potentials and limits of the particular concept figuring in the participant’s research will be discussed. Hence, a range of analytical concepts will be explored and discussed in relation to the participants’ research

c) Possibilities for supplementing a given conceptual apparatus with other analytical resources will be discussed

Course content
Concepts are the building blocks of academic research. And yet we often fail to understand properly how to use conceptual frameworks in order to advance our research. Max Weber made a conceptual breakthrough in his study on ‘the protestant Ethic’, Michel Foucault’s writings on ‘discipline’ and ‘governmentality’ and Ulrich Bech’s notion of ‘risk society’. The use of strong concepts makes a difference on the impact of our work in the research community and beyond.

Questions of the use of concepts are crucial in the discussions at Ph.D. defenses: Are the concepts the student is using relevant for the study in question? Are they carefully selected and defined? Could other concepts from alternative theoretical traditions have been chosen with better results? Are the concepts used in a manner that is sufficiently sensitive to the empirical material, or do they foreclose the complexities of the social or historical reality?

Schematically, it is possible to distinguish between three ways of utilizing concepts in academic work. First, one may use a concept to verify, generalize, or encapsulate empirical descriptions. A common strategy is to use a concept as a way to condense and present the overall findings of a research project, thereby advancing its relevance and traction beyond the particular case in question. The concept may serve to guide the choice of data, the focus points of attention, and the final presentation of the entire research project. For instance, a Ph.D. dissertation may set out to investigate the ‘governmentalization’ of Danish elderly care.

In this case, this project may be critically questioned in terms of how well it reflects the content of Foucault’s original concept, while, at the same time, it may be asked: to what extent does the project succeeds in generating original, unexpected insights that extend the concepts beyond the original formulation? We immediately can see that the use of the concept becomes central to any evaluation of the quality of this research project. In sum, in this first usage, the concept serves to encompass and substantiate empirical descriptions. 

Second, a study may have as its key objective to critique, challenge and reformulate a particular concept. In this case, the criteria of success is not whether a concept is applied in an adequate manner (that both respects the original definitions of it and produces new empirical insights), but rather whether the study effectively succeeds in contesting a given concept.

Such contestation may take place in different ways: factual data may be presented to contest the validity of a received, perhaps, self-evident concept; analytical work may demonstrate the logical contradictions and paradoxes inherent to a concept (formal deconstruction); and the recovering of historical material may display the fundamental contingency and instability of a given concept. Here, work by Derrida and Luhmann and scholars inspired by them would be relevant to the work undertaken. 

As a variant of the above approach, one may, third, mobilize a concept from an empirical archive and utilize it in one’s own writing, infusing it with new meanings, perhaps succeeding in redefining the concept altogether. This strategy could be termed ‘conceptual activism’ which rests on the recognition that constructing a concept is inevitably a performative act. This is so, because concepts are never neutral descriptors of reality but are always inserted into already conceptualized social domains. Here, they can have performative effects insofar as they re-describe, for instance, historical processes, the social order, what power is about, or how individuals achieve identity.

This strategy of marshalling concepts for particular intellectual-political purposes can be found in some of Foucault’s work. He would often use concepts that he had found in the historical archive and begin using it for his own purposes, mobilizing it for historical descriptions of the emergence of modern ‘biopolitics’ or ‘the governmentalization of the state’. Such conceptual innovations were normally undertaken both as a means of narrating a historical development and as a tool for intervening in a particular theoretical-intellectual context. Historical description by way of concepts would be a tool for addressing or intervening in a particular present. In this case, then, the use of concepts needs to arbitrate between serving as a representational category and as a tool of intervention. 

This course addresses these issues by both exploring general problematics and potentials related to the use of concepts in writing dissertations. We shall also give examples of specific (state of the arte) uses of concepts in the work of prominent scholars. 

We wish to emphasize that clarifying the use of concepts is not only pertinent to philosophical and sociological research. It often becomes a crucial issue in ethnographic, anthropological research, for instance when guiding hypothesis are formulated or when findings are synthesized.

Teaching style
The goal is to sharpen the conceptual apparatus in the dissertations. To that end we will set aside sufficient time to carefully examine and discuss the papers submitted by the participants.
The course will consist of both lectures/presentations by scholars who are specialist in a series of key thinkers’ use of concepts. The goal of the lectures is, first, to clarify the ways in which the thinker in question defined and employed their most significant concepts and, second, to suggest and demonstrate how to put the concepts at work in specific analysis. In the afternoon, there will be workshops that aim to explore how concepts function in each participant’s research/dissertation – with the aim of strengthening, deepening and nuancing the conceptual dimension of the dissertations/research (articles). 

Each participant is required to submit a paper that deals with the place of concepts in the PhD project in question. Papers that apply concepts to empirical problems in a variety of domains are welcomed, but so are papers that seek to contest, reformulate, or develop one or several concepts. A paper should be of approx. 10 pages. It is expected that the PhD student states the main analytical challenge/concern of the project in the paper, which we will then discuss in the light of conceptual challenges and potentials.
Papers/abstracts must be in English.

Deadline is 15th May 2023.

Lecture plan




Tuesday 30 may

9.30 - 12.00 

Kaspar Villadsen 

Introduction to the course. Heidegger’s philosophical work on concepts

12.00 - 13.00


13.00 - 15.00

Stefan Schwarzkopf 

Conceptual history: Writing histories for the present

15.00 - 17.00

Stefan Schwarzkopf & Kaspar Villadsen

Papers from PhD scholars

Wednesday 31 May

9.30 - 12.00

 Bent Meier Sørensen 

Conceptual Activism: Taking the lead from Deleuze

12.00 - 13.00


13.00 - 15.00

Kaspar Villadsen

Using concepts ‘like Molotov cocktails’: Learning from Foucault’s writing 

15.00 - 17.00

Bent Meier Sørensen & Kaspar Villadsen

Papers from PhD scholars

Thursday 1 June

9.30 - 12.00 

Justine Grønbæk Pors

Derrida and deconstruction as analytical strategy

12.00 - 13.00 


13.00 - 15.00 

Kaspar Villadsen

Using abstract theory in case studies: Letting the material ‘unfold’ the concept

15.00 - 17.00

Kaspar Villadsen & Justine Grønbæk Pors 

Papers from PhD scholars

Friday 2 June

9.30 - 12.00

Bent Meier Sørensen & Kaspar Villadsen 

Combining various concepts: The case of norm-violating leadership

12.00 - 13.00  


13.00 - 15.00 

Kaspar Villadsen 

Comparing conceptual strategies

15.00 - 17.00 

Kaspar Villadsen 

Concluding discussion and evaluation

Learning objectives
• Achieve a strong reflexivity regarding how the choice of concepts brings certain questions, problems, entities and processes into the foreground while others recede into the background

• Awareness of different ways of working with concepts in PhD dissertations, articles and academic writing in general. This awareness include the assumption that since the empirical data are not just ‘given out there’ but unfolded or narrated by means of concepts, the use of the concept becomes crucial. 

• The course will increase participant’s reflexivity on the role of concepts in academic writing. Is the concept determining or guiding what can be observed, is the concept recovered in the empirical material, or is the aim of the research to develop or reformulate a concept?



Start date

End date




Course Literature
For Kaspar Villadsen’s session (Tuesday):
• Heidegger, M. 1978: The Question concerning Technology. 

For Kaspar’s session (Wednesday):
• Villadsen, K. (2021) “‘The Dispositive’: Foucault’s Concept for Organizational Analysis?” Organization Studies, 42(3): 473-494.
• Deleuze, G. (1992) What is a Dispositive? In: T.J. Armstrong (ed.) Foucault: Philosopher. New York: Harvester Wheatsheaf, 159–168.
• Villadsen, K. (2021) “Chapter 1: Foucault’s Concept of Technology.” In forthcoming book: Kaspar Villadsen: Foucault’s Technologies. Oxford UP.

For Bent Meier Sørensen’s session:
• Deleuze, G. and Guattari, F. (1994) What Is Philosophy? New York: Columbia University Press (especially chapters 1-4).
• Johnsen, C. G. & Sørensen, B. M. (2014) “‘It's capitalism on coke!’: From temporary to permanent liminality in organization studies.” Culture and Organization, 21(4): 321-337.

For Stefan Schwartzkopf’s session:
• Koselleck, R. (1982) “Begriffsgeschichte and Social History.” Economy and Society, 11(4): 409-427.
• Bothello and Salles-Djelic (2018) “Evolving conceptualizations of organizational environmentalism: a path generation account.” Organization Studies, 39(1).

For Justine Pors Grønbæk’s session:
• Derrida, J. (2000) “Hospitality.” Angelaki: Journal of Theoretical Humanities, 5(3): 3-18. 
• Blackman, L. (2007) “Researching affect and embodied hauntologies: Exploring an analytics of experimentation.” In B. T. Knudsen and C. Stage (eds.) Affective methodologies (pp. 25-44). Palgrave Macmillan, London.

For Kaspar Villadsen’s session (Thursday):
• Foucault, M. (1982) "The Subject and Power." Critical Inquiry, 8(4): 777-795.
• Karlsen, M.P. & Villadsen, K. (2008) “Who Should Do the Talking?: The proliferation of dialoque as governmental technology.” Culture and Organization, 14(4):345-363

For Kaspar Villadsen and Bent Meier Sørensen’s joint session (Friday):
• Sørensen, B. M. and Villadsen, K. (2017) “Penis-twirling and Pie-throwing: Norm-setting and Norm-defying Drama in the Creative Industries.” Human Relations, (publ. early online).
• Sørensen, B. M. and Villadsen, K. (2016) “The Naked Manager: The ethical practice of an anti-establishment boss.” Organization, 22(2): 251-268

DKK 6500,-

Minimum number of participants

Maximum number of participants

Copenhagen Business School
Porcelænshaven 16B
2000 Frederiksberg 
Room: PH16B 1.18 (first floor)

Contact information
PhD Support
Nina Iversen

Registration deadline

Please note that your registration is binding after the registration deadline.

In case we receive more registrations for the course than we have places, the registrations will be prioritized in the following order: Students from CBS departments, students from other institutions than CBS.
Register here