Vocabulary words for social science scholars


I have now reached the end of my first term as a PhD student in the field of communication, and I would like to take just a moment to provide some inside knowledge for those who might be contemplating a jump into the same river that I’m currently tubing down. In particular, there are quite a few words that social scientists like to use, and I want to make you aware of these words and their meanings well in advance of your arrival in academia (hell, I still find myself mixing up several of these on occasion).

So, without any further ado, here we go.

  • Paradigm. A “body of belief” that shapes one’s approach to a subject.
  • Ontology. The study and understanding of what “exists.” You’ll see this used frequently as ontological.
  • Epistemology (pronounced uh-PISS-tim-ol-uh-gee). The study and understanding of knowledge. Scholars will sometimes refer to the epistemological constraints of this-or-that; this is in reference to our current understanding of what we know (or what we know we don’t know).
  • Axiology. The study and understanding of what we value. Less common to encounter this one, as academia endeavors to remain neutral and above-the-fray with regards to these kinds of judgments.
  • Pedagogy. The study and understanding of education. This one you’ll encounter quite a bit, particularly as pedagogical, which refers to the methods by which we educate.
  • Teleology. Aristotle proposed that explanations of something must consider the “final cause,” or the purpose for which the thing was created or produced. A teleological argument refers to the design or purpose of something.
  • The Enlightenment project. Another term for “the Enlightenment,” it was “an attempt to create a rational, progressive and cultivated society based upon the empirically discovered and/or logically deduced laws of nature and human nature.”1
  • Marxism. Developed by Karl Marx (duh!), an economic/sociopolitical worldview that divides “production” into two sections–the base and the superstructure.2
  • Postmodernism. While academia remains divided as to what exactly postmodernism is, communication scholars generally define it as
  • Colonialism and postcolonial theory. Very popular amongst qualitative researchers–this is the idea (crudely) that national identities are byproducts of efforts against imperial forces; it emphasizes the idea of “nationhood.”
  • Panopticon. Originally this referred to a circular prison with a guard tower located at the center, so that prisoners would behave regardless of whether or not they were actually being watched. Similarly, it now generally refers to a “surveillance culture”–people have no idea if/when they are being watched. Particularly applicable to the Interwebs.
  • Agency. The ability to do something.
  1. Definition from this syllabus.
  2. This stuff is way beyond me, as I’m a quantitative researcher–I would suggest starting at the Wikipedia page for Marxism and going from there if you care to torture yourself.