Absences, negatives and fissures are aspects of discourse analysis. Discourse analysis attempts to understand the meaning of a statement or argument, including its truth value in relation to other discourses (ways of representing reality). What is not said might be as important as what is said. For example, an early twentieth-century argument that was expressed entirely in the male gender (using the pronoun 'he') might be analysed to discover whether it omits the interests and needs of women.
Applied Social Theory: On occasion you may be asked to apply theoretical knowledge. This might involve taking a theory and applying it in a different context. For example, you may take a theory that was developed in one context (e.g., gender and discourse, or the different ways in which men and women communicate), and apply it to a new emerging context (e.g., SMS and instant messaging). In this case, your thesis may indicate how far the theory can be applied to the new context. Or you might be asked to take a theory that has come from controlled experimentation and apply it to a real world issue. For example, basic memory research indicates that we are better at remembering information at the beginning and end of a presentation; Phillip Ley then applied this knowledge to help doctors improve patient memory for following medical instruction. Again, your thesis will help the reader understand the direction of your argument.
Argument: Every essay has to have an argument. An argument is a series of linked statements that 'prove' a proposition or thesis. Students often don't realise the importance of researching the topic before beginning to write, so as to come up with a position – a point of view – to 'prove' in the essay. This point of view is stated in the thesis, which is normally placed at the end of the first (introductory) paragraph. Planning an essay is like gaining information while having an argument with yourself. One of the reasons why essays are difficult to write is that you have to come up with all the arguments for and against your own thesis.
Binary opposition: A binary opposition occurs when a pair of related terms or concepts that are opposite in meaning are set against each other. Simple examples are presence and absence, left and right, female and male. Structuralist philosophy sees such distinctions as fundamental to all language and thought. We cannot conceive of 'good' if we do not understand 'evil'.
Clincher: A clincher is an ending sentence of a paragraph that restates the topic sentence in new words. It may summarise how the information given in the paragraph supports the topic sentence.
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Colonialism is the control by one power over a dependent area or people. Examples are the empires of Spain, Portugal, Britain, the Netherlands and France that established colonies in Asia, Africa, and the Americas between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries. Today, the term is often used in a cultural sense, as an aspect of globalisation: for example, US culture and food (Disney, McDonalds) has “colonised” much of the rest of the world. See post-colonialism.
Commodity Fetishism: Marx showed that people often attribute great importance to objects and possessions, as if they have intrinsic value. In fact, as he pointed out, they have only exchange-value in the market, i.e. they are worth only whatever someone is prepared to pay for them. Marx suggested that the exchange of commodities obscures the true nature of economic production, including the relationship between the worker and the employer or capitalist. A current example is the high value given to mobile phones and other electronic products that are often produced in sweat shop conditions by poorly paid workers who may not be able to afford to buy the products they make. This is commodity fetishism, in that the object appears to have more value than the lives and experiences of those producing it.
Construct/Construction: These words are frequently used in academic language and have nothing to do with building. The philosophy of most humanities and social science subjects is that everything is created, or “constructed”, in discourse. According to Simone de Beauvoir, a female human being is not born a woman, but “becomes a woman”. This means that she learns her gender role from living in her culture. It is “constructed”. To a large extent, we all take on the role provided by our class, family and work context. In similar ways, academics might speak of a celebrity as “constructed” in discourse: their identity for us depends on the way they are portrayed in the media. “Social construction” refers to the way important concepts are constructed in society. For example, it can be argued that childhood is a social construction, as people rarely thought of children as different from adults until the nineteenth century. Representations are also constructed in texts, and can be analysed by discourse analysis.
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Cultural Capital is a term invented by the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu. It refers to the way in which individuals in society improve their exchange-value and social mobility (ability to rise in society) through non-financial social assets. Gaining a university degree is likely to increase one's cultural capital. Other examples can include being educated at an elite school, style of speech, dress, and even physical appearance.
Culture is a rich and complex term that has become extremely important since the second half of the twentieth century. Its most important meaning is 'way of life' - a concept that covers all aspects of human life including everyday practices such as eating and drinking. This may be divided into such categories as street culture, student culture, gang culture and so on. Confusingly, it is also often used in a narrower sense of the communication and entertainment liked by particular groups of people. In this sense, its forms may include 'high culture' (e.g. opera and classical music), and 'pop culture'. 'Popular culture' may include both the everyday life of ordinary working people and their entertainment. The concept of being 'cultured' (e.g. educated and with high cultural capital) is still widespread.
Discourse analysis: There are various meanings and methods of discourse analysis, but the most important for academic work in the humanities and social sciences is critical discourse analysis. This sees language not as a transparent means of communicating pre-existing ideas, but as having meaning only in particular historical, social, and political contexts. It always wants to challenge the truth-value of any statement and to ask in whose interests it is formulated.
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Discourse and Ideology: The concept of discourse was developed by Michel Foucault. Foucault agreed with Marx's analysis of ideology but thought it was too simple. Ideology, he thought, comprised not only big belief-systems such as religion, but was present in all aspects of life in the form of discourses. Discourses are ways of thinking, speaking and behaving that have become so commonplace that people rarely think about them. A current example is the discourse of crime: reported crime in the UK is steadily decreasing, but many people think and say that crime is getting worse. Foucault's ideas were developed by many thinkers. Jacques Derrida famously pronounced that “there is nothing outside the text”: we cannot ultimately know reality. The view current in humanities and social science is that we can never really know the truth about anything, but we can observe the ways people discuss issues, and point out negatives, absences and fissures.
Epistemology is the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature of knowledge. Each academic subject (English, Physics, Mathematics and so on) has its own epistemology, but this website argues that many humanities and social science subjects share the broad epistemology of cultural studies. For this reason, students who wish to do well and write good essays need to understand this epistemology. This glossary is intended to be helpful in this way.
Exchange value: The exchange value of a commodity is Marx's term for what the commodity is worth in the market (in modern economies, this usually means its price). It differs from use-value.
Foucault: Michel Foucault was a French philosopher who wrote his most influential work at the start of the second half of the twentieth century. Few people outside the university have heard of him, but he has had an extraordinarily powerful influence on the philosophy (the epistemology) of a wide range of academic subjects in the humanities and social sciences. He developed the concept of discourse (see above), which is fundamental to the contemporary study of English, history, sociology, media studies, social psychology, criminology, international relations and a number of other subjects. He also pointed out that power is not confined to the formal authority of police officers, etc., but that informal power is a crucial aspect of everyday life and relationships.
Globalisation refers to the ways in which human beings in different parts of the world have become increasingly connected, and now exchange and share products, ideas and other aspects of culture. In recent years, advances in transportation and communication (including the rise of the internet) have arguably accelerated this process.
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Identity: In everyday life, the term “identity” is often used to refer to a person's individuality and awareness of self. It is sometimes used this way in academic psychology, but even in this subject the term is also used relationally. For example, “gender identity” is a psychological term referring to the way in which a person experiences themself in relation to other men, women, or cross/trans gender people. In most other academic subjects, the term is used primarily to show the ways in which a person relates him or herself to a group of other people. Sociologists, for example, use the term to describe social identity, or the collection of group memberships that define the individual. In cultural studies and other disciplines, it also generally refers to gender, race, class or other groups with which the individual may identify.
Ideology: see Discourse and Ideology.
Introductory paragraph: The introductory paragraph is the most important part of the essay. It gives a thematic overview of the topic and introduces the thesis. This website gives a good deal of attention to the introductory paragraph, because a well-constructed introduction will help both you and the reader (your tutor) to make the best of your essay.
Marx: Karl Marx's model of society underlies much academic thinking. Marx claimed that society comprised an economic substructure (money relations, where the real power lies) and an ideological superstructure (ideas, such as religion and nationalism, that divert citizens' attention and allow the ruling class to dominate). His analysis was particularly powerful in the nineteenth century, where religion (which Marx called “the opiate of the people”) clearly encouraged people to work hard and endure often appalling working conditions. Other ideas associated with Marx are exchange value, use value, and commodity fetishism. His ideas had enormous influence on the development of nation states in the twentieth century (e.g. Russia, China, and certain African countries). Marx's ideas have been developed to fit contemporary social conditions, notably by Foucault and other thinkers like Althusser, Bourdieu, Barthes, Derrida, Deleuze and Kristeva.
Other, othering, otherness: These terms derive from Edward Said's very influential book Orientalism, first published in 1978. Said was one of the originators of post-colonial theory. “Othering” refers to the ways in which colonisers routinely constructed the colonised peoples as “other” and not sharing in a full humanity.
Post-colonialism is a way of thinking and writing about the cultural legacies of colonialism. It is particularly concerned with changing conventional ways of thinking about both the colonised peoples and the colonisers themselves, and with finding ways in which it may be possible to study the “other” without constructing damaging stereotypes, binary oppositions and the like.
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Power: We normally think of power in terms of formal authority, such as the power of a judge, head teacher, police officer and so on. However, within the university (i.e. within academic discourse), power is often discussed in terms of everyday life, such as personal relations (e.g. who has power over the remote control when a couple are watching television) and within institutions (e.g. the power relations within the university of students, campus security staff, tutors, administrators, and so on). Power is then an aspect of everyday discourses and practices. See also Foucault.
Practice: In everyday life, we normally use practice as a verb, as when we speak of practising music, rehearsing lines for a play, and so on. In humanities and social science, however, it is more often used as a noun. It refers to what people do in various situations. For example, we might speak of academic practices (in the university), domestic practices (at home), military practices, leisure practices and so on. The term derives from the view that most human behaviour is patterned by culture and society. The discourses of speech and writing are related to everyday social practices: thus we would expect specific people (doctors, teachers, mothers, lovers and so on) in specific situations not only to speak but also to behave in particular ways.
Representation: In academic discourse, representation usually refers to the ways in which specific people or groups of people (e.g. women, men, individual celebrities, people of a particular class or race) are portrayed within media (the press, radio, television, the internet) or other forms such as literature. It is thus an aspect of discourse, as people using particular discourses will tend to represent other people in certain ways. Think, for example, of the ways in which students are portrayed in the media. Successful A level students are usually represented by attractive young women, while university students may be represented as dressing and behaving in less attractive ways.
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Stereotype: A stereotype is a belief about what is characteristic about specific types of individuals. For example, students may be characterised as lazy, drunken, or (occasionally) hard working. It is usually accepted that a stereotyped belief may not accurately reflect reality in any particular case. However, in humanities and social sciences, stereotypes are an important means of understanding ways in which different groups of people are represented within culture.
Thesis: The thesis is the statement of the point of view that you will 'prove' in your essay. It is normally placed at the end of the first (introductory) paragraph. A thesis is like a seed. It will probably be general rather than specific, but it contains the germ of the argument of the essay. A good thesis will often suggest three aspects of the argument: for example, “The causes of [whatever your topic is] can be seen as social, political and economic”. This then allows you to develop your argument logically, dealing in turn with social, political and economic aspects. (See Introductory Paragraph.) The thesis statement will probably be referred to in the conclusion of the essay, to demonstrate that the argument has been properly made.
Topic sentence: The topic sentence is usually the first sentence in a paragraph. It summarises the main idea of that paragraph, and often provides a claim or an insight directly or indirectly related to the thesis. It thus adds cohesion to an essay.
Use-value is the usefulness of a good or service. The idea was developed by Marx, who showed that it is not use-value but exchange-value that matters in the market. Adam Smith, the eighteenth-century economist, recognized that commodities may have a high exchange-value but little or no use-value (e.g. diamonds), or a very high use-value but normally low exchange-value (e.g. water).
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