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This post is provided by Konstantin Hondros, post-doctoral researcher at University of Duisburg-Essen in the DFG-funded research project “Organizing Creativity under Regulatory Uncertainty: Alternative Approaches to Intellectual Property”.

Though “alternative” (both as an adjective and a noun) has widespread meaning in contemporary society, it is not generally clear, what constitutes and conveys something to be (an) “alternative”. This blogpost’s goal is to offer a more nuanced understanding of the concept and ask how this can guide the use of “alternative” as an analytical lens. To begin with, I give an etymological account, then I look at “alternatives” in philosophy and its significance for epistemology, finally, I describe how social sciences make use of “alternative” in an evaluative manner. While from a philosophical perspective, “alternative” is rather a logical operator, in the social sciences “alternative” evaluates institutions, practices, or beliefs. This evaluative use can be either positive and empowering, ambivalent and skeptical, or even negative and destabilizing. I argue that it is this umbrella-term’s multi-facetted and evaluative nature that makes it analytically fruitful for social sciences.

I thus develop the concept of alternative mainly for practical reasons. Our recently kicked-off DFG-funded project Organizing Creativity under Regulatory Uncertainty: Alternative Approaches to Intellectual Property pursues “alternatives” empirically. We take a closer look at how creative processes unfold when intellectual property (IP) is approached “alternatively” and what obstacles and uncertainties these processes encounter. We compare alternatives to the IP-regulations copyright and patent law with case studies from the music economy and the pharmaceutical industries. Differentiating “ alternatives” will inform our methodological and analytical proceeding as it will give as clearer picture of what we are actually dealing with empirically.

To scrutinize a concept, it is helpful to start with its etymological roots. “Alternative” as an adjective has its root in the Latin verb alternare, meaning to “do one thing and then another, do by turns”, which is connected to the meaning of “purporting to be a superior choice to what is in general use”. As a noun, however, an “alternative” can be linked to rhetoric, where it is understood as a “proposition involving two statements, the acceptance of one implying the rejection of the other”. This gives an overview about the two key understandings of “alternative” that I go into more detail in the following: on the one hand the oppositional position an alternative takes on, when an alternative implies rejecting something else, which I find in philosophy; on the other hand, the evaluation of a (possibly) “superior choice” that I connect to social sciences.

In philosophy, “alternative” can be defined very formal in the following manner (Vogel 1999): “An alternative A to a proposition P is a logical contrary of P; A is an alternative to P just in case P entails -A.” To consider “alternatives” in that way plays a central role in the theory-strain of epistemology called “relevant alternatives theory” (RAT). The philosopher Fred Dretske (1970) differentiated between relevant and irrelevant alternatives when it comes to knowledge of a certain proposition (P) in order to scrutinize the core question of epistemology how one can know that P? One of RAT’s main goals is to find a way to circumvent the deceiver hypothesis of skepticism. The funny example Dretske uses to explain this hypothesis is abbreviated as CDM, short for cleverly disguised mule. In a zoo we see a group of zebras. Yet, when we claim to know that what we see is a group of zebras, skepticism could counter this proposition with the question how we can be sure that these are really zebras and not cleverly disguised mules. By distinguishing relevant from irrelevant alternatives mainly through pragmatic reasoning RAT argues that not every possible alternative matter in a situation and that we can still keep up our proposition that the animals we see are in fact zebras.

For the purpose of alternatives as an analytical lens we can learn from philosophy’s focus on the proposition itself, rendering alternatives as means to an end. Alternatives are in place to create knowledge about the proposition. Knowledge about the alternatives is, however, of less relevance. Adding to this, alternatives are put in opposition to a proposition, they mutually exclude each other. The animal in the zoo is either a zebra or a mule. Being both at the same time, the proposition and its alternative is logically not possible. However, it could be a particularly social characteristic of alternatives that they are not as clearly separable from their respective proposition.

From the perspective of social sciences, however, the concept of “alternative” comes less as a logical operator opposing a proposition, but as an evaluation of institutions, practices, or beliefs. Regularly, the concept of “alternative” is used in a positive and empowering sense, for instance in cases of analyzing cultural institutions and practices like “alternative media” (Bailey et al. 2007) or “alternative music” (Kruse 1993). There are also fields of research, where “alternatives” encounter much more skepticism and are evaluated ambivalently. This is the case when looking at practices and beliefs like “complementary and alternative medicine” (Gale 2014). Yet, “alternative” can be used as a framing to capture negative and destabilizing beliefs as well, like in the recent rise of interest in “alternative facts.” (Barrera 2020). Generally, alternatives are in place to analyze (allegedly) dominant institutions, practices, or beliefs and – to put it in a nutshell – the “mainstream”. We thus find a wide sense of “alternative” in social sciences that builds on the possible coexistence of several institutions, practices, and beliefs at the same time.

Thinking about “alternative” as an analytical lens, and not least in our own case of investigating alternative approaches to IP, I believe that it is necessary to keep both the epistemological-philosophical as well as the evaluative-sociological perspective in mind. The former informs us how investigating alternatives is always entangled with of our “proposition” in the first place and that we need a clear understanding of what a phenomenon is alternative to. By investigating alternatives, it might be that we rather learn about (what we believe to be) dominant institutions, practices, or beliefs. The latter makes us aware that analyzing alternatives is quite dependent on an evaluative construction of what is actually the dominant institution, practice or belief. While without methodological reflection this might lead to tainted frameworks, being aware of possibly diverging evaluations could allow a much richer analysis of alternatives.


Bailey, O. G., Cammaert, B., & Carpentier, N. (2007). Understanding alternative media. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.

Barrera, O., Guriev, S., Henry, E., & Zhuravskaya, E. (2020). Facts, alternative facts, and fact checking in times of post-truth politics. Journal of Public Economics, 182, 104-123.

Dretske, F. I. (1970). Epistemic operators. The journal of philosophy, 67(24), 1007-1023.

Gale, N. (2014). The sociology of traditional, complementary and alternative medicine. Sociology compass, 8(6), 805-822.

Kruse, H. (1993). Subcultural identity in alternative music culture. Popular Music, 12(1), 33-41.

Vogel, J. (1999). The new relevant alternatives theory. Philosophical Perspectives, 13, 155-180.