Megawords: 200 terms you really need to know

Richard Osborne
Sage Publications: London
2003
0761974741 (pb)
vi + 258

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Front CoverRichard Osborne is known for his best-seller Philosophy for beginners, a book that sold more than a million copies in some 30 languages. This prolific author is also senior lecturer at Camberwell College of Art in London, England. Osborne's Megawords is a kind of a technical dictionary on social theory, that includes many of the current academic terms and concepts that scholars and students use daily without always giving a straightforward definition, because those specific terms can be used in a widely diverse range of contexts and disciplines. Definitions are about one page long, presented alphabetically, beginning with 'aberrant decoding', until the last entries on 'Whiteness' and Roland Barthes' concept of 'Writerly/Readerly'. Each entry has a one-line definition for the term, followed by a longer essay that often includes some historical background and occasionally a few accurate examples.

Among its well-chosen 200 entries, Megawords gives detailed definitions of basic concepts such as 'culture', 'ideology', 'hot and cold media', but it also includes useful entries on disciplines (like 'epistemology', 'genealogy') or current theoretical approaches such as 'ethnicity', 'cultural studies', 'formalism', or 'postmodernism'. There are also accurate definitions of some current terms mainly used in cultural studies, with a very specific signification that couldn't be found in ordinary dictionaries, such as 'cult', 'Queer theory', 'cyberpunk', and, more broadly, concepts like 'cyborg', 'political correctness' and even 'Thatcherism'. Most definitions are well formulated, concise and clear. For instance, 'citizenship' is presented here as "the idea that the individual has rights and responsibilities which must be recognized by the state" (p. 69). 'Civil society' is defined as "everything in society that is not government" (p. 71). We find an entry on 'code', and another one on 'encoding/decoding', although the author has not put a link between these two entries. But some other definitions end with the useful mention "see also÷", that refers to other related entries. There are no entries for persons or authors per se, neither for specific works nor for famous books. It is too bad there is no index either, but a brief bibliography is to be found at the end (pp. 255-258).

While I read this Megawords, I couldn't help but think about Raymond Williams' famous book titled Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1976; rev. ed., 1983). But as Richard Osborne fairly writes here in his entry on 'culture', academics' recent critique of everything related to culture has tremendously evolved and has profoundly changed the way we now use this concept, more than two decades after Williams' pioneered efforts and theorizing : "Williams has an entry in his Keywords for 'popular' but not for popular culture, a term which is today almost a disciplinary object in its own right." (p. 97).

Of course, perhaps as many scholars who also teach, I would have preferred 210 entries instead of 200 in this single book ! For instance, we can find an entry on 'inter-textuality' (p. 172), but none on 'cross- cultural' ; there is an instructive entry on 'interdisciplinarity' (p. 169), but not on 'transdisciplinarity'. One would need as well an entry on Foucault's concept of 'superstructure'. But the book stands on its own. Furthermore, I appreciated the fact that there are quite some French words that are fairly defined here, such as 'bricolage' (p. 55), from Claude Lévi-Strauss' The Savage Mind, but also 'jouissance' (p. 173), a term often used by Lacan, Kristeva and Barthes, and 'interpellation', that refers to Louis Althusser's theory of the state (p. 170). A few sociological terms forged by Pierre Bourdieu such as "cultural capital", "doxa", "habitus" are also explained here. Definitions often give historical elements but do not pretend to be comprehensive. For instance, 'Anomie', one of the earliest sociological concepts, is defined as "normlessness (a product of social disintegration)" (p. 28), and related here to Émile Durkheim's book on Suicide (1897), but there are no mention about French philosopher Jean-Marie Guyau, who in fact first used the term in 1885.

As an affordable reference book, Megawords will be a useful tool for students in social sciences, cultural studies and philosophy, and for others who need to build a strong conceptual framework by using cleverly the right terms in the right place.

Yves Laberge
Institut québécois des hautes études internationales, Québec