How to Define the Elephant: Towards a Novel Conceptualization of Populism

Gerim G.

Siyasal: Journal of Political Sciences, vol.31, no.1, pp.115-135, 2022 (ESCI)


In recent decades, a serious number of studies have been dedicated to defining and conceptualizing populism in order to enable proper and comparative analyses of the phenomenon. They usually studied populism by reducing it to an ideology, discourse, or strategy and provided analytical approaches accordingly although some other approaches (style of communication, political project, etc.) are possible to come across in the relevant literature. Critically engaging with the most influential ones, this article ascertains two principal deficiencies in these bodies of work. Firstly, the minimal and generic definitions presented in these studies empty the concept to a broad extent. Secondly, most scholars assume the concentrated dimension of populism as the whole of the phenomenon and undertake its conceptualization with this assumption to a large extent. As a result of a comprehensive discussion on these main and also some secondary deficiencies, this article offers two ways to treat them. Scholars who examine populism and make comparisons between different cases can either carry out their analyses by taking the multi-layered nature of the phenomenon into account or by clearly stating the dimension of populism which they study and, in this way, limit their work to this dimension without further claims. In addition to all these, showing the inadequacy of the Sartorian approaches that dominate the literature, the article discusses that Wittgensteinian approaches can provide appropriate alternative frameworks for the conceptualization of populism.