The e-book “The Economy” of the CORE Project (which I’m using in my classes) has an interesting discussion about definitions in social sciences in its first unit.
For example, ‘Capitalism’ refers not to a specific economic system, but to a class of systems sharing some characteristics. How the institutions of capitalism—private property, markets, and firms—combine with each other and with families, governments, and other institutions differs greatly across countries. “Just as ice and steam are both ‘water’ (defined chemically as a compound of two hydrogen atoms bonded with one oxygen atom), China and the US are both capitalist economies. But they differ in the extent to which the government influences economic affairs, and in many other ways."
One might think that humans are too complex. But I guess that if other animals had evolved an ability to use definitions to try to explain what happens to them, they would have run into similar problems. But as far as I know (non-human animals always surprise you), they have not. They have evolved other equally intriguing and very complex abilities, such as flying or having a radar system.
“Some people might say that ‘ice is not really water’, and object that the definition is not the ‘true meaning’ of the word. But debates about the ‘true’ meaning (especially when referring to complex abstract ideas like capitalism, or democracy) forget why definitions are valuable. Think of the definition of water, or of capitalism, not as capturing some true meaning—but rather as a device that is valuable because it makes it easier to communicate.” And ask questions about the world.
"The Economy" adds that “definitions in the social sciences often cannot be as precise as they are in the natural sciences. Unlike water, we cannot identify a capitalist economic system using easy-to-measure physical characteristics.”
And later on, “We should be sceptical when anyone claims that something complex (capitalism) ‘causes’ something else (increased living standards, technological improvement, a networked world, or environmental challenges).”
An economy is made up of the interactions of millions of people. We cannot measure and understand them all, and it is rarely possible to gather evidence by conducting experiments. But the things we observe in the world can help us investigate causes and effects (and just describe!) through a variety of techniques -always with great caution.
The same that happens with “capitalism,” happens with democracy, socialism, freedom, federalism…