What is the meaning of contested normative valance?

Concepts such as “contested normative valance” are of value, in my view, because it’s useful to include concepts from the social sciences in the study of history.

For this reason, it’s of interest to read the views of Sönke Neitzel, a historian, and Harald Welzer, a sociologist and social psychologist, regarding warfare. Similarly, it’s of interest to read the views of historian Peter Burke regarding the influence of social theory on the study of history.

Contested normative valence and essentially contested concepts

With regard to contested normative valence, an article by Boas and Gans-Morse (2009), discussed in a previous blog post, outlines the meaning of the term.

Another article that discusses contested normative valance is Essentially Contested Concepts: Debates and Applications, by David Collier, Fernando Daniel Hidalgo, and Andra Olivia Maciuceanu, published in the Journal of Political Ideologies (October 2006).

“Contestation” refers to disagreement. In this case, the reference is to conceptual contestation, which refers to disagreement regarding concepts.

As Collier, Hidalgo, and Maciuceanu (2006) note (p. 212 of the article), “The strong normative valence [see definitions below] associated with some concepts, often combined with other considerations, motivates users to strongly prefer a particular meaning. They may energetically defend their own usage, whereas others will contend that an alternative usage is correct – hence the idea of a contested concept.”


The Oxford Canadian Dictionary, Second Edition (2004) refers to “normative” as an adjective defined as “of or establishing a norm.” Relevant definitions for “norm” include:

  1. a standard or pattern or type
  2. standard quantity to be produced or amount of work to be done
  3. customary behaviour, appearance, etc.
  4. the average or general level


In the above-noted article, the authors note (p. 241) that “the terms ‘normative’ and ‘appraisive’ [that is, concerned with the making of appraisals] refer to arguments that explicitly or implicitly reflect judgements about what ‘ought to be’ or ‘ought not to be.'”

Among the definitions for “valence” at thefreedictionary.com is one that reads:

  • Psychology The degree of attraction or aversion that an individual feels toward a specific object or event.

Usage and terminology

I believe there is tremendous value in defining one’s terminology clearly – especially in the case of contentious topics such as neoliberalism.

Update: A 2003 article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, available at the British Medical Journal website, is entitled “Medicine as an essentially contested concept.” I found the article of much interest as it touches upon topics, including ones studied by Erving Goffman among others, that have long been the subject of contestation.

The 2003 article noted above (p. 262) highlights what “essentially” means when we speak of W.B. Gallie’s notion of an essentially contested concept: “The force of ‘essentially’ is to mark off this kind of contestedness from contests which are simply contingent or accidental, perhaps resulting from ignorance, which can in principle be resolved. To claim that a concept is essentially contested is to claim that disputes over its use are not resoluble even in principle.”


4 replies
  1. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Colleen O’Marra writes:

    That was about as clear as mud. The ‘terminology’ would make
    Shakespeare squirm. Why misuse one of the most beautiful languages on
    the planet ? A reading of the phone book would be a more compelling
    force. Apologies to Bell. ( C. O’Marra)

  2. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Colleen O’Marra wrote earlier (concerning this post or one around this time):

    Not so much objectionable Mr. Pill as it is obscure. Example: what is
    an orifice in an edifice for the diurnal illumination of light other
    than a WINDOW ? ( C. O’Marra)

  3. Jaan Pill
    Jaan Pill says:

    Good to read the comment. I’ve just posted it today as it had ended up in a folder that I happened to read just now.

    I would agree that some writing including my own may readily be characterized as obscure. That having been said, in my view there is value in exploring a wide range of topics, including how language is used and how concepts are formulated and developed. From my perspective, clarity in language includes precision regarding how concepts are defined, and a solid grasp of how and by whom they are used.

    At times, the exploration of such such topics is abstract and the vocabulary is academic. It’s my personal view, however, that the kind of language that such exploration at times entails can help a person to get a better sense, among other things, of what history is, and how historians go about their work.

    As well, how the world is organized, and how everyday reality is perceived – economically, socially, politically, and in all manner of other ways – is to some extent the outcome of concepts and frames of reference that have been shaped over time, often with input from academic resources. Such concepts warrant exploration, using language which has the capacity to enable a person to grasp the meaning of such concepts.

    My views are one among many, of course, and contrary views are always great to know about. There is value in discussion back and forth.


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