While the study of federalism has in many respects reached an advanced stage today, there nevertheless remains a troubling absence of agreement as to the precise meaning of the concept. It is subject to multiple definitions, which overlap with one another in various ways and sometimes conflict. This leads to material negative consequences for both academic research and public policy, which can no longer be overlooked. The article confronts the problem by reviewing what the social science theory of concepts teaches for the construction of methodologically sound definitions of concepts. It employs the insights gained in the elaboration of a valid taxonomy of political systems, from which the definition of a federal political system can be inferred, and hence that of federalism. Rethinking the concept in this way points to the need to reject the currently fashionable ‘broad’ definition (following Elazar) in favour of a return to a ‘narrow’ differentiated definition (following Wheare). Further, it illuminates the existence of two distinct federal structures – the federal state and the federal union of states – where before only the former was known. It thus leads to identification of the presently unidentified or ‘sui generis’ European Union as an instance of the latter form.
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