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Making it abstract, making it contestable: politicization at the intersection of political and cognitive science

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The notion of politicization has been often assimilated to that of partisanship, especially in political and social sciences. However, these accounts underestimate more fine-grained, and yet pivotal, aspects at stake in processes of politicization. In addition, they overlook cognitive mechanisms underlying politicizing practices. Here, we propose an integrated approach to politicization relying on recent insights from both social and political sciences, as well as cognitive science. We outline two key facets of politicization, that we call partial indetermination and contestability, and we show how these can be accounted for by appealing to recent literature in cognitive science concerned with abstract conceptual knowledge. We suggest that politicizing a concept often implies making its more abstract components more salient, hence legitimating its contestable character. Finally, we provide preliminary suggestions to test our proposal, using the concept of gender as case study.
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Review of Philosophy and Psychology
https://doi.org/10.1007/s13164-022-00640-2
Abstract
The notion of politicization has been often assimilated to that of partisanship, es-
pecially in political and social sciences. However, these accounts underestimate
more ne-grained, and yet pivotal, aspects at stake in processes of politicization.
In addition, they overlook cognitive mechanisms underlying politicizing practices.
Here, we propose an integrated approach to politicization relying on recent insights
from both social and political sciences, as well as cognitive science. We outline two
key facets of politicization, that we call partial indetermination and contestability,
and we show how these can be accounted for by appealing to recent literature in
cognitive science concerned with abstract conceptual knowledge. We suggest that
politicizing a concept often implies making its more abstract components more
salient, hence legitimating its contestable character. Finally, we provide preliminary
suggestions to test our proposal, using the concept of gender as case study.
Keywords Politicization · Contestability · Abstract concepts · Social
metacognition · Gender/sex
Accepted: 19 April 2022
© The Author(s) 2022, corrected publication 2022
Making it abstract, making it contestable: politicization at
the intersection of political and cognitive science
ClaudiaMazzuca1· MatteoSantarelli2
Claudia Mazzuca
claudia.mazzuca@uniroma1.it
1 Department of Dynamic, Clinical Psychology and Health, Sapienza University of Rome,
Via degli Apuli 1, 00185 Rome, Italy
2 Department of Philosophy and Communication, University of Bologna, Bologna, Italy
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C. Mazzuca, M. Santarelli
1 What does politicization mean? Contributions from political
philosophy and political theory1
In the last few years, a signicant and growing attention has been given to the issue
of politicization. The term is currently used in media debates and discussions. In this
context, politicization often takes on–either implicitly or explicitly–the meaning of
partisanship. Take for instance newspaper headlines such as “How Could Human
Nature Have Become This Politicized?” (Edsall 2020), or “Let’s avoid politicizing
the virus” (Razzante 2020). These titles convey the idea that by politicizing some-
thing, we frame it as an issue of contention between political parties. Politicization is
here understood “as undue encroachment of (partisan) politics into seemingly neutral
or non-political arenas, institutions, activities and realms, such as sport, religion, the
arts, science, the civil service, etc.” (Jenkins 2011, p. 156). In this perspective, if
this “something” has an allegedly objective nature–i.e., if it is a natural kind, like a
virus–then politicization introduces an unnecessary and epistemologically danger-
ous partiality. Politicizing an issue therefore entails shifting the discussion from the
analysis of how things really are, to the partisan struggle between parties that want to
dictate their agenda and interests.
Recently, this often implicit understanding of “politicization” has been challenged.
As Hay’s (2007) seminal work points out, politicization should not be reduced to the
attempts of political parties and governments to frame issues as politically relevant
and salient. While the idea that an issue enters mass politics “when a political party
picks it up” (Hooge and Marks 2012, p. 848) surely captures an important feature
of politicization, this pragmatic insight should not be mistaken for a general deni-
tion. Politicization (and de-politicization) are concrete processes that take place in
everyday life, involving dierent social actors in dierent social contexts. So, while
certainly the activities of political parties and governments play a decisive role in
framing some issues as politically relevant, there is apparently no cogent normative
or descriptive reason for reducing politicization to the domain of political parties’
partisanship.
The need for a plural understanding of the ways in which politicization (and
de-politicization) takes place has been explicitly addressed by existing literature
in political science and political theory. Zürn (2012, 2019) showed how practices
of politicization occur at dierent levels and layers, e.g., domestic, European, and
international. This suggests caution before dening a specic historical time period
as generally de-politicized. It might be that processes of de-politicization at the
domestic level coexist with, and are compensated by, processes of politicization at
the international level. Along the same lines, Wood and Flinders (2014) discussed
how practices of politicization can be of various kinds also at the level of the same
society. They proposed to distinguish three dierent dimensions of politicization and
de-politicization. As for politicization, the three levels are: (1) governmental: an issue
falls into the domain of governmental activities; (2) societal: an issue shifts from the
1 Although this article was conceived and discussed together by the authors, Sect. 1 is authored by Matteo
Santarelli; Sects. 2 and 3 are authored by Claudia Mazzuca. Conclusions have been co-written by both
authors
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Making it abstract, making it contestable: politicization at the…
private sphere to the public sphere; (3) discursive: an issue becomes the object of
conict and contestability. Similarly, dynamics of de-politicization can take place at
three dierent levels: (1) a Weberian-governmental de-politicization: the shift from
government control to external agencies; (2) a Tocquevillian-social de-politicization:
demotion of a topic from the public sphere to the private sphere; (3) a Gramscian-
discursive de-politicization: demotion of a topic from the sphere of contestation to
the realm of necessity. Since the three layers are partially independent from each
other, it is possible to imagine a situation in which institutional political actors are
actively engaged in strategies of de-politicization at the societal and discursive level
(Wood and Flinders 2014). These approaches outline the plurality of processes of
politicization, but whether and how this variety can be crystallized into a single, gen-
eral denition remains an open question.
To this end, Hay (2007) attempted to provide a single general denition of politi-
cization starting from a broad understanding of politics as the realm of contingency
and deliberation. Politics is thus a domain where things can go otherwise, and where
we have—at least potentially a say in deciding the direction that the course of events
should take. This wide understanding of what politics is might appear too vague.
However, the very vagueness of Hay’s denition has some important advantages.
First, it accounts for the fact that, when presenting some issues and events as polit-
ically relevant, people often have in mind dierent implicit and explicit ideas of
what “politics” means. In face of this plurality, endorsing a too strict and determined
denition of politics would push us to hastily label as “non-political” those prac-
tices not entirely tting into our previous denition of political. Second, a strictly
determined denition would miss an important feature of practices of politicization,
i.e., the interplay between concepts and practices. Feminist movements showed how
practices of politicization of the body and of the private dimension potentially imply
a redenition of the political, rather than applying pre-existing denitions of poli-
tics and of “the political” to previously pre-political domains (Diotima 2009). An
excessively rigid and demanding conception of politics would not be exible enough
to account for this interplay. In the framework provided by this understanding of
politics, politicization can be thus understood as the process through which a specic
issue, topic, or phenomenon enters the sphere of “the political”—thereby becoming
the target of contention, a hub for conicts, a space open to alternatives and contro-
versies. Conversely, de-politicization has to do with ‘nitude’, ‘inevitability’, ‘unal-
terability’, ‘end’, ‘xity’, ‘necessity’, ‘destiny’, ‘predetermination’, and ‘resignation’
(Hay 2007, p. 72).
Lately, several authors elaborated on Hay’s schema. For instance, Jenkins (2011)
proposed to integrate Hay’s emphasis on contingency and deliberation with two spec-
ications. First, contingency should include the ows of powers and conicts char-
acterizing social life, rather than referring to a merely general indetermination and
openness. It is because of the pervasive presence of conicts that politics appears as
an inherently value-laden and contested process (Jenkins 2011). Second, deliberation
should be framed as a specic possibility emerging from a more general dimension
that Jenkins calls agency, dened as “the contingent but reexive interplay between
pervasive power relations and capacities for autonomy in collective life” (Jenkins
2011, p. 159). In this way, contingency is furtherly qualied in its constitutive con-
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C. Mazzuca, M. Santarelli
nection with conict and contestation, while deliberation is expanded into the more
general dimension of agency, understood as a locus of tensions and interplay between
the reality of power structures and relations, and the possibility of autonomy. Along
similar lines, Zürn (2012, 2019) creatively and critically developed Hay’s contin-
gency-deliberation model. He denes politicization as making a matter a subject of
public discussion (Zürn 2012), as a process which moves something into the realm
of public choice and of collectively binding decisions (Zürn 2019). Like Jenkins,
Zürn too explicitly introduces the element of contestation as a qualifying element
of politicization. Furthermore, he delves deeper on the aective dimension of these
processes. An issue is politicized when it becomes the object of interest and concern–
what he calls rising awareness–and when it has a potential for mobilization (Zürn
2012).
1.1 A proposed account of politicization
For the sake of conceptual clarity, these contributions can be systematized in a two-
features model of politicization. The rst feature is partial indetermination. Politi-
cizing an issue involves framing it as something that can go otherwise, something
that cannot be reduced to what is immediately given. This idea has been nicely cap-
tured by historian of concepts Reinhart Koselleck. According to Koselleck’s analysis,
politicized concepts are irreducible to fully determined referents: as long as they aim
at mobilizing people, they involve a reference to the future, and this requires a cer-
tain degree of openness (Koselleck 2004). As the existence of politics relies on the
capacity for things to be dierent (Hay 2007), strategies of politicization will then
consist in questioning and problematizing what is taken for granted, for morally and
politically unquestionable, and essential (Jenkins 2011).
The second feature is contestability. In the existing literature, the expression “con-
tested” has often served the purpose of highlighting the conictual nature of political
concepts. Resorting to Gallie’s original denition of essentially contested concepts
(Gallie 1955), political theorists and philosophers identied political concepts as the
locus of specic kinds of contestations (Connolly 1974; Gray 1977; Ball 1988). How-
ever, in the context of our discussion the term “contestability” means more than being
the potential subject of disagreement. In fact, our approach aims at accounting for
both the critical and the constructive function of contestability. Contestability does
not simply mean that something is the object of disagreement and conict. Rather, it
also denotes the possibility of conictual and/or cooperative co-construction. Koop-
man (2013, 2019) convincingly captured the critical and constructive dimension of
contestability through the notions of problematization and reconstruction. By prob-
lematizing, we show how things that are portrayed as purely given, taken for granted
and “natural” are in fact the outcome of contingent and conictual practices, that
entail dierent consequences for dierent groups and subjects. By reconstructing, we
actively take part in the process through which individuals and groups develop and
direct the possibilities of action and agency opened by problematization.
The critical/problematizing function of contestability is strictly related to partial
indetermination. This connection can be conceived in two dierent directions. One
might think that it is because things are partially indeterminate that a certain room is
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Making it abstract, making it contestable: politicization at the…
open for contesting and problematizing things as they are, rather than taking them as
purely given and unchangeable. At the same time, one might say that by represent-
ing something as contestable, we highlight the indeterminate and open traits of the
represented object. Authors like Laclau (2005) and Rancière (2013) would tend to
emphasize the ontological nature of this openness and indetermination, and thus the
idea that contestability is made possible because of the constitutive openness and
heterogeneity of society. On the other hand, indetermination and openness might be
seen as the outcome of practices of contestation, rather than as an ontological presup-
position of contestability. Hay seems to go in this latter direction, as he maintains
that by questioning the inevitability of process which we represented before as xed
and totally outside our control, we expand the domain of politics (Hay 2007). Here,
we will not take a stand between these two dierent interpretations, which have been
already discussed and compared in existing scientic literature (Beveridge 2017).
For our purposes, it suces to say that there is an interconnection between partial
indetermination and contestability.
The reconstructive function of contestability consists instead in highlighting the
possibility of co-construction of new meanings. Therefore, contestability is not lim-
ited to conict of opinions and intellectual disagreement. The space opened by con-
testability leaves room for processes of doing something new together. In this way,
contestability is a kind of transmission belt between mere disagreement and the co-
construction of new meanings, ideas, and concepts. More specically, in the wake of
Dworkin’s (2011) discussion of dierent kinds of disagreement, we will understand
“contestability” in the sense of a peculiar coexistence of agreement and disagree-
ment. According to Dworkin (2011), political concepts like freedom, justice, and
equality should be understood as interpretative concepts. Interpretative concepts are
characterized by a peculiar coexistence of disagreement and basic agreement on the
employment of the same concept. So, we share an interpretative concept even if we
disagree on what instances belong to the concept and on its precise character (Dwor-
kin 2011). In a nutshell, we usually disagree about political concepts such as liberty
and equality dierently from what we do when we are trying to determine whether
the car hitting the road is an Audi or a Mercedes Benz. This means that their content
and their meaning are subject to dierent descriptions, and potentially open to further
conictual revisions and negotiations2. So, contestability involves a certain degree of
potential tension and ambiguity. It keeps together agreement and disagreement, and
it leaves the possibility open for conict and collective co-construction.
Before moving forward in the discussion, two clarications are needed. First, here
we are not providing a denition of what a political concept is in itself. Rather, we
are interested in what happens in people’s minds and discourses when they frame
and understand a concept as political—in particular, when they want to emphasize
its political dimension. So, our approach does not aim at introducing a list of politi-
cal concepts, nor at explaining why a concept is political and why another concept is
2 Interpretive concepts are thus particularly subject to meaning negotiation, i.e., a type of interaction in
which a common interest to agree coexists with conicting interests in the agreement to be made. For a
discussion of meaning negotiation, and of the tight relation between this type of practice and semantic
indetermination see Warglien and Gärdenfors (2015).
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C. Mazzuca, M. Santarelli
not. However, for the sake of linguistic uidity we will recur sometimes to the term
“political concept”, without implying the existence of a pre-given list of concepts
that are inherently political. Second, we believe that our approach is compatible with
two dierent understandings of the relation between ‘political’ and politicization.
According to the rst understanding, some events and some issues are political in
themselves. For instance, if we believe that x is political as long as it is a kind of
structure or agency that impacts on others (Jenkins 2011), politicizing will consist
in making explicit the–already–political nature of x. On the contrary, according to a
more performative understanding, nothing is political before being politicized. There
is no external source dening something as political outside the practices through
which something is perceived and labelled as political.
In what follows, we will focus on what Wood and Flinders (2014) call discursive
politicization/de-politicization, i.e., how people talk about and dene concepts when
they perceive them as political. By focusing on the communicative and cognitive
dimension of this process, we do not need to endorse one of the two competing
understandings of the relation between political and politicization. At the level of our
analysis, it is not important to ascertain if we politicize by making explicit or relevant
features that are already political, or if something becomes political only as an eect
of our politicizing discursive strategies. We are interested in how people think and
speak when they frame something as political and politically relevant. For this rea-
son, our proposal of politicization is compatible with both externalist and performa-
tive understanding of the political3.
In the following sections, our argumentation will follow two steps. First, we will
try to translate the insights gained from social philosophy and political theory in
the language of cognitive sciences. This will shed light on the cognitive mecha-
nisms underlying processes of politicization, hence paving the way to a measurable
approach to this debated phenomenon. Second, we will apply this integrated model
to a case study, i.e., the politicization of the concept of gender.
2 A cognitive perspective on political concepts and politicization
The depiction of political concepts and politicization provided so far resonates with
some of the denitions of abstract concepts proposed in cognitive science. Abstract
concepts have been traditionally dened as concepts lacking a clear and bounded
perceptual referent in the physical world (e.g., Paivio 1986; Brysbaert et al. 2014).
Others (Borghi and Binkofski 2014) identied two main dimensions for explaining
abstract concepts, i.e., abstraction and abstractness. In their perspective, abstrac-
tion is a common feature of concepts overall, and refers to the fact that concepts
serve the function of generalizing across the multitude of instances we encounter in
everyday life. So, every concept can potentially vary in its degree of abstraction (e.g.,
the concept golden retriever has a lower degree of abstraction than the concept dog).
Abstractness is instead dened as the level of detachment from concrete, manipulable
referents of some concepts, like abstract concepts. For instance, the concept of eth-
3 We thank Reviewer 1 for pointing us to the necessity of clarifying this point.
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Making it abstract, making it contestable: politicization at the…
ics is hardly referable to clear perceptual instances in the physical world: it is then
said to have a high level of abstractness. In this perspective, abstract concepts4 are,
to some extent, loosened from their concrete referents, they are quite general, and
their denition encompasses several instantiations (see Borghi and Binkofski 2014).
This proposed account of abstract conceptual knowledge is in line with the previous
characterization of politicization. Specically, it can be linked with the rst feature
of politicization as sketched out in the previous section, i.e., partial indetermination.
In fact, while more concrete concepts tend to refer to more xed and determined
referents, research showed that more abstract concepts condense under a single label
multiple and variegated situations (see e.g., Barsalou and Wiemer-Hastings 2005).
Recent proposals (e.g., Wiemer-Hastings et al. 2001; Barsalou et al. 2018; Borghi
et al. 2018, 2019) are questioning the sharp dichotomy opposing abstract and con-
crete concepts. Behavioural and neuroimaging studies have curtailed the purported
distance between ‘purely abstract’ and ‘purely concrete’ concepts, showing how
abstract concepts are spanned over a multidimensional space comprised of several
components (Catricalà et al. 2014; Harpaintner et al. 2018; Villani et al. 2019, see
Conca et al. 2021 and Mazzuca et al. 2021 for recent reviews).
The category of abstract concepts is constituted of a multitude of dierent exem-
plars, each relying on dierent grounding sources to dierent extents (Borghi et al.
2019; Barsalou 2016a). Some abstract concepts, such as emotional or numerical con-
cepts are more linked to sensorimotor and inner grounding experiences (Moseley
et al. 2012; Connell et al. 2018; Fischer and Shaki 2018), while others are more
related to social and linguistic experience (Mellem et al. 2016; Shea 2018; Borghi et
al. 2018; Prinz 2002). Although dierent kinds of abstract concepts can be studied
separately, the boundaries of the category of abstract concepts are blurred. Desai et
al. (2018), for instance, demonstrated that the neural underpinnings of numerical,
emotional, moral, and other abstract concepts signicantly overlap with areas tradi-
tionally linked with the processing of concrete concepts. This suggests that, overall,
those concepts are entrenched in a space that includes event-properties, interocep-
tive states, and sensorimotor features that contribute to their grounding to dierent
extents. So, while sensorimotor properties might be generally more relevant for con-
crete objects representation, in some cases they might also be grounded in emotional
and introspective features (as in the case of potentially highly emotionally-laden
objects such as knife; p. 12), hence explaining the neural overlapping.
One of the proposed mechanisms for acquiring and processing abstract concepts is
social metacognition (Borghi et al. 2018, 2019; Fini and Borghi 2019), i.e., the need
of relying on others to understand abstract concepts. In fact, more abstract concepts
are more heterogeneous, complex, and variable across contexts than more concrete
concepts (Davis, Altman & Yee, 2020). So, linguistic labels and explanations help us
to glue together dierent streams of information related to an abstract concept which
we might encounter in dierent settings (Dove et al. 2020). Studies investigating the
4 Here, we refer to the notion of “concepts” as developed by proponents of embodied and grounded cogni-
tion. According to this view, concepts are couched in our perceptual and sensorimotor systems, and words
re-enact multimodal experiences connected with their referents (Barsalou 2008, 2016a; see also Meteyard
et al. 2012; Speed and Majid 2019).
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C. Mazzuca, M. Santarelli
modality of acquisition of abstract words showed that, compared to concrete words,
they are primarily acquired via linguistic inputs (see Wauters et al. 2003), and recent
evidence stresses the importance of mouth-motor movements in the acquisition and
processing of abstract meanings (e.g., Barca et al. 2017; Sakreida et al. 2013; Maz-
zuca et al. 2018). It has been proposed (Fini and Borghi 2019; Mazzuca et al. 2021)
that sociality and linguistic cues are dierentially engaged in the acquisition and
subsequent elaboration of more concrete and more abstract concepts. For example,
for more abstract concepts (e.g., ethics), we might need to rely on others’ knowledge
to rene our understanding (Borghi et al. 2018; Shea 2018; Prinz 2002). Recent nd-
ings coming from Italian rating studies further support this idea. For instance, in a
large rating study of abstract concepts, Villani et al. (2019) found that more abstract
concepts were also characterized by higher scores of social metacognition. Similarly,
Mazzuca et al. (2022) reported that concepts for which participants judged the need
of others to be crucial for understanding the meaning also received lower scores
of Body-Object-Interaction (i.e., a measure highly correlated with concreteness, see
Tillotson et al. 2008). These results point to the tight connection between abstract-
ness and social metacognition, underlining the importance of the latter for specic
concepts. According to this proposal, while innerly searching for the meaning of a
concept (e.g., truth), people might feel less competent (Shea 2018)–or simply unsure
about the meaning–and prepare to ask for information.
Importantly, we do not simply rely on others to understand the meaning of a con-
cept, but we often dynamically negotiate and co-construct meanings. This is espe-
cially relevant for politicized concepts, which are frequently the remit of public
discussions (e.g., social media, tv shows, or simply conversations with peers). In this
case, the information gained through public and social discussions might contribute
to the renement of the conceptual repertoire of speakers, without necessarily imply-
ing a strict “division of linguistic labour” (Putnam 1975). This broader interpretation
of social metacognition translates into the already discussed notion of contestability,
i.e., the second characterizing feature of politicization. Remarkably, acknowledging
the role of others–whether experts or peers–in the co-construction and consolidation
of meanings accounts for both the problematizing and the reconstructive facets of
contestability.
Following this characterization, one might think that abstractness and social
metacognition are variables synergically aecting politicization. However, not only
“abstract concepts” can be contested and negotiated. To better understand this seem-
ingly contradictory statement, we should focus on the process allowing for a con-
cept to be politicized, instead of trying to identify which kinds of concepts can be
politicized. That is to say, our proposal does not imply that only abstract concepts can
be the purview of politicization. Rather, we suggest that the process through which
politicization is made possible necessarily entails making the concept partially inde-
terminate, open to revisions and further determination, hence highlighting its more
‘abstract’ components. In the following section, we will clarify how it is possible to
highlight more abstract or concrete components of a concept—i.e., we will deepen
aspects related to conceptual exibility.
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2.1 Abstract concepts in context, or contextualized conceptualizations
Recent developments in cognitive science addressing the topic of abstract concepts
converge on two main points. First, the neat distinction between ‘purely abstract’ and
‘purely concrete’ concepts is reductive (cf. Barsalou et al. 2018), as attested by inter-
nal dierences in the category of abstract concepts (e.g., Ghio et al. 2013; Roversi
et al. 2013; Crutch et al. 2013; Desai et al. 2018; Mellem et al. 2016; Villani et al.
2019). Second, a concept–whether abstract or concrete–cannot be studied in isolation
from the context and the situations for which it is required. Politicized concepts seem
to meet all the criteria described so far: in fact, they appear to be concepts for which
more abstract components are made more relevant depending on the context, via a
process entailing negotiation and re-denition.
The notion of situated conceptualization (Barsalou 2016b) provides a useful theo-
retical framework to explain the interplay between context and concepts. Conceptu-
alizations can be understood as laying in between concepts and representations (for
a discussion on representations see Connell and Lynott 2014; see also Casasanto and
Lupyan 2015). They are less general than concepts and are constrained by situations
dierently from representations. We could say, conceptualizations are not task spe-
cic (like representations), but situation-specic—i.e., they depend on constraints
imposed by cultural, social, and linguistic practices. In keeping with the denition
proposed by Barsalou (2016b) situated conceptualizations combine local and global
aspects of a situation: they allow for the integration of knowledge derived from situ-
ation processing (e.g., task conditions) and from more general relations mediated by
conceptual knowledge. As a situated conceptualization is constructed, it becomes
established in long term memory through associative mechanisms, and it will emerge
when a person engages with a specic kind of physical and social situation to inter-
pret the situation and to guide actions.
Importantly, situated conceptualizations can account for individual and group dif-
ferences (Barsalou 2016b). It is likely that dierent people experience dierent kinds
of situations related to a specic phenomenon, consequently allowing for dierent
situated conceptualizations to arise in their respective memories. Indeed, conceptu-
alizations are typically the battleeld of political debates. For example, the concept
work, at the highest level of abstraction, is a quite uncontroversial concept. When
descending in the hierarchy though, it is possible that the very conditions for den-
ing something as work may change depending on the specic situational context.
The division of labour in housekeeping has been one of the most heated issues in
feminist debates: this is because duties such as housework or emotional labour have
never been considered as work. Dierences in conceptualizations have therefore con-
sequences on the regulation of economic and social policies. More importantly, as
the example shows, conceptualizations are negotiable and negotiated among social
actors via public debates. Intuitively, the variability entailed in the construction of
situated conceptualizations is more likely to aect abstract concepts. Indeed, except
in very restricted communities of use, it is less common to disagree on what a con-
crete concept (e.g., chair) is than to disagree on what an abstract concept is (e.g., is
bringing my child to school and to the gym everyday work?).
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C. Mazzuca, M. Santarelli
Situated conceptualizations might evidence more abstract or more concrete com-
ponents of a given entity, regardless of its specic construal. As discussed before,
all concepts can be to some extent ‘abstract’ and ‘concrete’ (Yee 2019). In specic
cultural and social settings, a domain considered as traditionally concrete might be
conceptualized as more abstract. Olfaction, for instance was found to be broadly
represented in concrete terms in Western societies (e.g., Dutch participants), whereas
it is conceptualized in more rened and abstract terms by Jahai speakers (a hunter-
gatherer community of the Malaysian peninsula; Majid et al. 2018; Majid and Kruspe
2018). We suggest that for political conceptualizations, the mechanism allowing
contestability and negotiability is specically related to the process of highlighting
‘more abstract’ components of a concept. When a concept is partially indeterminate
it increases the possibility to be re-conceptualized–and thereby contested–in dier-
ent ways. On the other hand, when the referent of a concept is strictly determined,
there is less space for dierent conceptualizations to arise. Whether ‘more abstract’
or ‘more concrete’ features of a concept will be considered as salient would depend
on the social and cultural context in which the situated conceptualization is acquired,
retrieved, and re-enacted.
In the following section, we provide an example demonstrating how a concept like
gender becomes a politicized concept, outlining the processes that lead to its con-
testability. We will rely on our two-folded approach bridging together insights from
political and cognitive science, and propose a tentative strategy to test our proposal.
3 A case study: the concept of gender
Gender/sex conceptualizations, and the consequences of their dierent denitions
are ubiquitous. From public debates concerning human rights, to scientic literature,
to health and well-being issues, up to private and interpersonal relations we employ
gender/sex conceptualizations almost automatically. For all of these approaches to
exist, it is crucial to agree on the basic criteria dening the purview of the discussion.
And yet, it is properly the misalignment among dierent conceptions of gender/sex-
related matters that makes the continuous denition and re-denition of the concept
gender/sex possible.
3.1 Gender, sex, or gender/sex? Contesting the concept of gender
“The chief distinction in the intellectual powers of the two sexes is shewn by man
attaining to a higher eminence, in whatever he takes up, than woman can attain
whether requiring deep thought, reason, or imagination, or merely the use of the
senses and hands.” (Darwin 1871, p. 361)
Although certainly outdated, the passage cited above sets a footprint for the dis-
cussion to follow. Indeed, Darwin was not alone in claiming that sexual dierences
explained intellectual dierences. Rather, his statement is the result of a long-lasting
tradition inquiring human bodies in the attempt to nd dierences capable of explain-
ing why females (or women) were not apt for public and social life—in one word,
why females were inferior human beings. The passage is also illustrative of a fur-
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Making it abstract, making it contestable: politicization at the…
ther trend, namely the implicit conation of sex (i.e., the biological make-up) into
gender (i.e., the social role deriving from sex). Long before Darwin’s The Descent
of Man, essentialist claims on the relationship between, for example, the dimension
of women’s brain and their intellect were considered well-established scientic evi-
dence for the exclusion of women from social and political life. Studies coming from
craniology and phrenology, later replaced by studies on hormones, all contributed to
the idea that supposed biological dierences driven by sex determined the infantile,
mutable, and emotional character of women, that consequently should have been
excluded from any rational activity (see Rippon 2019). In this framework, what later
was labelled “gender”, is a consequence of biological and natural factors, delimiting
the boundaries of two distinct categories of the human being, viz. females and males.
The link between sexual distinctions and behavioral and cognitive properties has
all but disappeared throughout history. In fact, studies aimed at identifying psycho-
logical dierences between women and men continued to pile up (e.g., Maccoby
and Jacklin 1974; Breedlove 1994; Sax 2017), and they all converged on the idea
that these two discrete sexual categories are somehow dierent in their behavioral
attitudes, cognitive capacities, and desires.
Feminists were among the rst to question these reductionist approaches. They
claimed that conating gender (i.e., behavioral and social factors) into sex (i.e., natu-
ral features) was but a way to perpetrate the status quo of a predominantly mascu-
line perspective (see the notion of androcentrism in Bem 1993; Bailey et al. 2019;
Hegarty et al. 2013), that legitimized the discrimination of women (Rubin 1975). So,
the distinction between the concept of sex as a natural, biological, and immutable
datum and gender as its social and cultural interpretation rstly emerged to contrast
the biological determinism implied in the construction of gendered identities. In this
perspective, gender was understood as the result of social and cultural practices reit-
erated by social actors on the basis of sex dierences5. Dening gender in these terms
allowed for a critical analysis of the mechanisms entrenched in the constitution of
gendered roles, that far from being natural were instead revealed as consequences of
social and culturally specic processes (Risman 2004; West and Zimmerman 1987).
The main point became then to contest the xed and causational character of sex to
uncouple gender roles from sexual categories.
Moving forward, the very natural character of sex was jeopardized. Butler for
instance (1990, 1993), argued that the natural body cannot be completely disentan-
gled from the socialized body, in that even what we consider as “natural” is the result
of an act of interpretation. According to Butler, our sexed bodies never exist outside
social meanings. Consequently, sex is not the pre-given, natural essence of gender.
Rather,
Are the ostensibly natural facts of sex discursively produced by various scien-
tic discourses in the service of other political and social interests? If the immutable
character of sex is contested, perhaps this construct called “sex” is as culturally con-
5 The reconstruction of this passage applies more specically to the Anglophone world. Sometimes in
European feminisms (e.g., in Simon De Beauvoir and Italian feminism of “sexual dierence”) the concept
of “sex” includes socio-political aspects that in Anglophone second-wave feminisms would be attributed
to gender.
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C. Mazzuca, M. Santarelli
structed as gender; indeed, perhaps it was always gender, with the consequence that
the distinction between sex and gender turns out to be no distinction at all. (Butler
1990, p. 9)
As Halperin (2014) summarized, “[A]ccording to Rubin, human societies begin
with sexed bodies and produce gender. According to Butler, human societies begin
with gender and impose it on human bodies as sex” (p. 452). This view is corrobo-
rated by ndings on the biological development of sexual markers (Fausto-Sterling
2000, 2012) showing how typically feminine and masculine genitalia are just two
extremes of a variegated spectrum of possible congurations (see also Blackless et al.
2000) with respect to chromosomal, gonadal, hormonal, and genital sex.
Recent ndings coming from neuroscience, biology, and social endocrinology are
nowadays challenging the idea that sex and gender can be completely disentangled.
To illustrate, testosterone, traditionally considered the “masculine hormone”, was
found to be socially modulated by incrementing sexual thoughts or activities of nur-
turance (e.g., van Anders et al. 2011). Along the same lines, psychological and neu-
roscientic research on sex dierences has been subjected to a radical reexamination
(see Hyde 2005; Hyde et al. 2019; Joel et al. 2015; Joel and Fausto-Sterling 2016).
Against this background, some scholars recently coined the term gender/sex (van
Anders 2015) to account for the strict intertwinement between biological and social
factors in the shaping of gendered and sexed identities. Gender/sex is “an umbrella
term for both gender (socialization) and sex (biology, evolution) […] reects social
locations or identities where gender and sex cannot be easily or at all disentangled.”
(p. 1181). In this perspective, the materiality of our bodies is neither denied, nor natu-
ralized so as to serve social purposes. Rather, both specic forms of embodiment and
social and environmental factors dierentially and dynamically contribute to dene
gender/sex (Fausto-Sterling 2019).
To summarize, gender, and the categorizations it aords, is a controversial con-
cept. More to the point, gender conceptions have been the site of contestations and
political stances. Whatever the best way to address gender/sex, here we seek to pro-
vide partial answers to some related pivotal questions. For instance: how is it pos-
sible for a concept to be the site of so many collective contestations? Why and how
did gender/sex became a contested, and political concept? What processes allowed
for the conceptual shift from gender as a biological property linked to sex to gender
as a social construction, and what are their consequences in terms of the conceptual
representation of gender/sex?
3.2 Gender/sex is a politicized concept
In keeping with the previous discussion, gender/sex is an emblematic example of a
politicized concept. Throughout history, in fact, dierent perspectives attempted to
x once and for all the physical and corporeal referent of gender (e.g., genitalia, hor-
mones), each time incurring in some congurations escaping traditional denitions
(Fausto-Sterling 2012). The failure in establishing a concrete referent for the cat-
egory of gender, along with critiques to the notion of gender as a normative parameter
of inclusion or exclusion (Butler 1990) of certain individualities from a given social
group (e.g., women) made explicit the partial indetermination of the concept gender.
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Making it abstract, making it contestable: politicization at the…
All those aspects revealed how gender/sex is a complex and ambiguous concept, and
for this very reason, it is constantly contested.
Interpreting politicized concepts, and gender/sex, in these terms discloses two
main problematic strands. First, one might wonder–given this denition of politi-
cized concepts–whether the specic embodiment or personal experiences related to
gender/sex matters at all. Indeed, if to explain politicized concepts we posit their
intrinsic partial indetermination (or abstractness), we apparently leave no room for
the centrality of lived experience acknowledged for instance by some feminist inqui-
ries (see Beauvoir, 1949; Young 1980; Braidotti 1993; Grosz, 1987) and intersec-
tional theories (e.g., Garland-Thomson 2002; Bettcher and Garry 2009). However,
as already discussed, embodied and grounded theories of cognition (e.g., Barsalou
2008) stressed how our conceptual system and our perceptual, sensorimotor systems
are strictly interwoven. In this perspective, our concepts are thought to be couched in
our bodily states, and inuenced by the environment surrounding us, and by our own
specic bodily congurations (see the notion of “bodily relativity”, e.g., Casasanto
2009; 2011). In addition, according to recent proposals, even abstract concepts, like
concrete concepts, are embodied and grounded in our bodily assets (see the previous
section; for recent reviews see Conca et al. 2021; Mazzuca et al. 2021). In line with
these considerations, and with the notion of situated conceptualization, it is clear
how abstract concepts do not necessarily lack physical and embodied components.
Instead, more embodied and bodily aspects might be more or less salient depending
on the situation and on the social actors involved.
The second criticism arising from this discussion is related to the contested char-
acter of politicized concepts. Does this feature entail that politicized concepts are
incessantly contested in every social context in which they are employed? As Ball
(1988) noted, such trivial and unrealistic understanding can be eschewed by high-
lighting the contextual character of contestability. Here, we focused on the more par-
tially indeterminate and contestable facets of gender/sex, that in keeping with our
proposal allowed its politicization. However, this does not exclude that in specic
social, cultural, and temporal settings, its conceptualization can be uncontested and
determined. The situated and yet exible aspect of conceptualizations again supports
this intuition—making explicit how it is possible for a concept such as gender/sex to
be contested in specic social and cultural settings, and not in others.
3.3 Operationalizing theory: empirical suggestions and future research
directions
Further research is needed to assess the extent to which abstractness alone predicts
patterns of politicization and political conict. In the following, we outline dierent
approaches that we believe might be informative for this purpose—and that might, in
the future, provide empirical evidence for our proposal. On the one hand, semantic
uency tasks (e.g., Mazzuca et al. 2020) and psycholinguistic norms (e.g., Brysbaert
et al. 2014; Villani et al. 2019) could be combined with political science instruments
such as the World Value Survey (Inglehart et al., 2014) to better investigate the rela-
tion between abstractness and political values. Another promising avenue is consti-
tuted by recent developments of computational techniques for automated semantic
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C. Mazzuca, M. Santarelli
analyses like word embeddings (Mikolov et al. 2013), a class of machine learning
techniques based on the assumption that the meaning of a word can be described by
words that tend to co-occur with it (Harris 1954; Firth 1957). Among other applica-
tions, these classes of methods have been recently used in combination with other
machine learning techniques to shed light on shifts in meaning over time (see for
example Rodman 2020 on the concept of “equality”), or in combination with norm-
ing databases to investigate the diachronic trajectory of concreteness (Snefjella et al.
2019).
While an extensive empirical validation of our proposal exploiting these tech-
niques is beyond the scopes of this paper, here we provide a brief example of how
the preliminary step of such analyses can be implemented. Specically, we tackle
the rst characterizing aspect of our proposal, namely the relation between abstract-
ness and politicization focusing on the concept of gender. For illustrative purposes,
we created word vectors for Wikipedia texts based on the GloVe (Pennington et al.
2014) word embedding learning algorithm through R’s (version 3.6.2, R Core Team,
2019) “text2vec” (Selivanov et al. 2020) implementation for the target word gen-
der and we calculated cosine similarities between vectors of words that most fre-
quently co-occur with gender. Cosine similarity is conventionally used to measure
the distance between vectors in a multidimensional space, and ranges from 0 to 1
with higher values indicating stronger similarity. All data and scripts are available at
https://osf.io/y38t4/. The analyses were performed using RStudio (version 1.4. 1100,
RStudio Team, 2020) and data processing and visualization were carried out using
“dplyr” (Wickham et al. 2020), “tidyverse” (Wickham et al. 2019) and “ggplot2”
(Wickham 2016). Accordingly, the top ten most similar words to gender are sexual-
ity (cos = 0.70), grammatical6 (cos = 0.70), identity (cos = 0.68), sexual (cos = 0.67),
orientation (cos = 0.66), sex (cos = 0.63), role (cos = 0.60), masculine (cos = 0.60),
neuter (cos = 0.59), and plural (cos = 0.58). In keeping with the approach proposed
in this contribution, we sought to assess whether words that are closer to gender in
the semantic space have also low concreteness scores. We then retrieved concrete-
ness scores for the top 10 most similar words to gender according to cosine similar-
ity scores from one of the most frequently used databases of English concreteness
norms (Brysbaert, Warriner & Kuper, 2014), in which 40 thousand of English words
are rated on a scale from 1 (“abstract, language based”) to 7 (“concrete, experience
based”). In this subset, ratings of concreteness were very low, with sex being rated
as the most concrete word of the sub-set (M = 4.1; SD = 0.94), and identity as the less
concrete (M = 2; SD = 1.23). To get a broader picture, we extended our query to the
top 40 words that based on their cosine similarity scores were most related to gender,
and once again looked at their concreteness scores. We found that on average the
top 40 most related words to gender had also low scores of concreteness (M = 2.42;
SD = 0.64). Figure 1 shows a schematic representation of the results.
This brief example testies the potential of these linguistic computational tech-
niques for testing the hypothesis proposed in this paper. As we can see from the plot,
6 It is interesting to note that even though one might consider grammatical as a simple linguistic associa-
tion, the impact of linguistic structures such as grammatical gender on social aspects (e.g., gender equality)
is a timely and debated issue (Prewitt-Freilino et al. 2012; Lindqvist et al. 2019).
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Making it abstract, making it contestable: politicization at the…
most of the top 40 words related to gender received very low concreteness scores—
there are few words passing the concreteness threshold of 3.5, and even fewer pass-
ing that of 4. However, we found no correlation between concreteness and cosine
similarity in the present sample of words, r(38) = 0.10, p > .05. Therefore, in keeping
with our proposal, we conjecture that the contestability of concepts—i.e., what we
have here identied as the second characterizing feature of politicization—should be
also quantied and investigated. In the future, a more stringent test might take into
account this further aspect to unravel more clearly the relationship between politici-
zation, partial indetermination, and contestability as proposed in this paper.
4 Conclusions
While to date politicization has been mainly addressed as a form of partisanship,
here we proposed a potential mechanism enabling the politicization of concepts. We
argued that politicizing a concept specically implies that its more “abstract” compo-
nents are rendered more relevant. We argued that a common strategy for politicizing
a concept is to highlight its partially indeterminate, general, and contestable facets. In
a nutshell, we propose that in order for a concept to be the remit of negotiation, this
has to be made partially indeterminate. The construal of abstractness, as purported
by latest developments in cognitive science, might help operationalizing partial inde-
termination—in that it opens up the possibility for a concept to be re-dened in the
Fig. 1 Scatterplot of the top 40 words related to gender in Wikipedia texts and their concreteness scores in
Brysbaert et al. (2014) database. Words are coloured based on their concreteness scores
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C. Mazzuca, M. Santarelli
process of negotiation. Likewise, insights gained from the discussion of processes of
grounding of abstract concepts such as social metacognition might provide a further
source for tackling politicization. Specically, we suggested that social metacogni-
tion could account for the second proposed feature of politicization, i.e., contest-
ability. The close relation between abstractness and social metacognition reported in
studies addressing conceptual representations thereby helps unravelling the entwine-
ment between partial indetermination and contestability—a connection often drawn
by political scientists and philosophers, but seldom analytically developed.
In line with recent perspectives on conceptual representation (e.g., Barsalou et al.
2018; Borghi et al. 2019), we showed how this process does not entail a complete
detachment from perceptual and concrete components of concepts. Rather, those
aspects dierentially interact in the constitution of politicized concepts, as a func-
tion of diverse social and historical environments, but also as a function of dierent
experiences with the referent of the concept under scrutiny. As the literature on situ-
ated conceptualizations (Barsalou 2016b) suggests, in fact, the representation and
consolidation in memory of concepts is intrinsically tied to multimodal, experiential,
and contextual features, that are re-enacted each time we interact with concepts and
guide our actions. Additionally, due to the low degree of “situational systematicity”
of abstract concepts (Davis, Altman & Yee, 2020), it is likely that one of the preferen-
tial means through which they are constituted and consolidated are linguistic inputs
(e.g., Wauters et al. 2003; Borghi et al. 2018). In the case of politicized conceptual-
izations, the linguistic information is often conveyed by public debates and experts,
which are necessarily embedded in a specic historically, socially, and culturally
situated contexts.
Whether experiential, bodily, and perceptual aspects are more salient than social,
cultural, and linguistic aspects would vary within and between cultures as well as
over time. More physical and perceptual aspects are less likely to be the remit of
negotiation. On the other hand, more abstract features, given their partial indeter-
mination aording new conceptualizations possibilities, allow for the exibility that
contesting a concept requires. Recent ndings are speaking in favor of this hypoth-
esis. Mazzuca et al. (2020) compared free-associations to the words gender produced
by “normative” (i.e., generally conforming to bigenderist benchmarks) Italian speak-
ers to those produced by “non-normative” (i.e., individuals who do not conform to
bigenderist and benchmarks; e.g., genderqueer, gender diverse, and plurisexual)
individuals. Their results show that while for “normative” participants perceptual,
biological, and binary features were especially salient (e.g., they frequently listed
words such as “female-male”, “woman-man”, “sex”), “non-normative” individuals
stressed more experiential, social, and political aspects (e.g., “queer”, “discrimina-
tion”, “uidity”, “construct”).
Although often politicizing a concept entails evidencing its ‘more abstract’ fea-
tures, we do not intend to claim that processes of politicization cannot occur also
via a process of de-abstraction. For instance, some strands of feminism stressed the
importance of embodied and material experiences of being a woman by relying on
physical and corporeal aspects related to sexual dierence (Braidotti, 1991; Grosz
1994). Research in social psychology has also addressed the extent to which embrac-
ing biological arguments to explain sexual preferences results in dierent patterns
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Making it abstract, making it contestable: politicization at the…
of acceptance towards LGBTQI people (e.g., Falomir-Pichastor & Hegarty, 2014;
Hegarty and Pratto 2001), and eviscerating concrete, anatomical, and neural com-
ponents of homosexual and heterosexual men brains constituted the site of political
contestations (see Hegarty 1997). So, concrete components of a concept (woman,
homosexual) in specic historical contexts might be stressed by political subjects to
claim visibility. It can be preliminarily hypothesized that the function of de-abstract-
ing is a way to render the concept un-contestable and un-negotiable. Although this
strategy can be interpreted as de-politicizing when framed in terms of discursive de-
politicization as discussed in this paper, it can still bear signicant political eects
on social life. Indeed, discursive politicization –i.e., representing a concept as par-
tially indeterminate and as the remit of contestability–can be distinguished from the
political use and the political eects of a concept represented as fully determined and
non-contestable. The latter would be used for political purposes, while at the same
time being discursively de-politicized, in the sense that individuals and groups can-
not play any role in problematizing and reconstructing this concept. Albeit this issue
warrants a future detailed analysis, this preliminary distinction ts with the idea that
(de)politicizations take place at dierent levels, hence allowing certain practices to
be depoliticizing at one layer, while preserving a political function at a further level.
To conclude, partial indetermination and contestability appear to be strictly
related. The more abstract we make a concept, the more contestable we make it; the
more concrete we make a concept, the more de-contestable we make it.
Acknowledgements We would like to thank Anna M. Borghi, Chiara Fini, Roberto Frega, Federica
Gregoratto, Yvonne Hütter-Almerigi, Asifa Majid, Elisabeth Norclie, Luca Tummolini, Tullio Viola, and
Justo Serrano Zamora for the stimulating discussions and thoughtful insights on previous versions of this
paper. We also thank the editor and the anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments.
Funding Open access funding provided by Università degli Studi di Roma La Sapienza within the CRUI-
CARE Agreement.
Conflict of interest None.
Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License,
which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long
as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative
Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this
article are included in the article’s Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line
to the material. If material is not included in the article’s Creative Commons licence and your intended use
is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission
directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit http://creativecommons.org/
licenses/by/4.0/.
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... Notably, in some cases, people might violate these maxims and deliberately misinterpret others, especially when their ideological positions differ from their interlocutor's. Finally, we might rely on others because abstract concepts, having a less determined meaning, are more contestable than concrete concepts (Mazzuca and Santarelli, 2022). So, we might feel the need to negotiate their meaning with others. ...
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Introduction The nature of the following work will be best understood by a brief account of how it came to be written. During many years I collected notes on the origin or descent of man, without any intention of publishing on the subject, but...