Developing key concepts

DSCN0529An important writing task in the early stages of PhD research will be to consider the key concepts embedded in research questions, aims and hypotheses. What do they mean? Are there several possible interpretations? How will you explore and define them?

Which concepts will you need to explore and develop most carefully? The answer will only become apparent as your research progresses, but you will certainly need to consider in relation to your research:

  • Concepts that feature prominently in research questions or claims
  • Concepts that are relatively new or unfamiliar to readers in your field
  • Concepts that appear to be unstable or fluid
  • Concepts that appear to be contested by certain writers

A useful starting-point might be to look at the efforts of other writers. There are some notable examples to follow:

Raymond Williams’ “Keywords” and the “Keywords Project”

Although the “Keywords” book was published in 1983, it is still a source of inspiration to many writers in Social Science or Arts and Humanities disciplines. It demonstrates how difficult concepts can be fully explored and different interpretations carefully considered. The starting-point for Williams was a consideration of how the meaning of ‘culture’ appeared to be changing in the immediate post-war period.

For further details see:


“New Keywords” and Discipline-Specific Guides

There are many other books that can serve as a useful point of reference when you are struggling to unpack certain concepts. The best-known generic example is “New Keywords” published by Wiley. Another publisher, Palgrave Macmillan, has produced a series of excellent guides in specific subject areas. See: