Keyword essay 30%

Theoretical Concepts for American Studies, Autumn 2017, University of Sussex. This information is an exact copy of the keyword essay instructions on Study Direct. I am posting it here because SD is having database problems today. The lecture slides for Week 12, which covers the same information, are here.

This assessment is inspired by the cultural materialist Raymond Williams’s classic 1976 book Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, which unpacks the cultural meaning and use of loaded and complex words, such as “nature” and “society.” John Pat Leary’s project Keywords for the Age of Austerity is conducted in a similar spirit. Your keywords will be a bit more specialized than the ones that Williams investigates, though, and instead of the historical deep dive that Williams does, you’ll build on your reading and thinking from this module.


  • 1500 words
  • must focus on one of the concepts listed below
  • must include an original example of how the concept is useful, drawn from an American Studies context (can be historical, cultural, literary, etc.)
  • you should cite appropriately using Chicago, MLA, or MHRA style. If you use an automatic citation generator, you must check to ensure that the metadata is correct. There is no excuse for listing a translator as an author or formatting a journal article like a book.


Explain, using specific quotations from relevant theoretical sources and one example of your own choosing, a concept from the list below. Your explanation must be rooted in knowledge of theoretical texts; i.e. you are not being asked to riff on your personal feelings about “power.” You will not be able to explore every aspect of your keyword, so choose a dimension on which to focus. For instance, if you are writing about “sexuality,” you may choose to focus on the historicization of the idea of “homosexuality.”

Most of the keywords listed below are not simple, tidy ideas that can just be applied; in fact, many of them (such as “value” or “sexuality”) are here precisely because they are too often taken for granted and need to be denaturalized, questioned, and analyzed. A good essay will recognize this and respond to tensions and complexities in the keyword.

You may choose a concept that you wrote about for your Portfolio, but if you do so then your Keyword Essay must go substantially beyond the response paper in question (i.e., you cannot submit the same work twice).

You must include an original example drawn from American history and/or culture. Your example should demonstrate your understanding of the concept or keyword that you are discussing; you should choose an original example rather than reusing an example from the module reading or lectures. For instance, you might show how the concept of intersectionality helps us understand the courtroom scenes at the end of Richard Wright’s novel Native Son, or how the concept of nationalism helps us understand a specific media representation of drone warfare. It is up to you to decide how to balance your explanation of the concept with your exploration of how it applies to your example. One way to approach this essay would be to choose a (focused!) topic or cultural object in American Studies that interests you and then work out how one of the theoretical concepts listed below can help us think about it. [For more ideas about the kinds of primary sources you could use for your example, see this lecture slide and the slides that follow it.]

Your essay should draw on module readings and, where appropriate, other high quality scholarly sources. If, for example, you are writing about melancholia, other related works by Freud, or works (articles, books) by relevant subsequent theorists and scholars like Melanie Klein or Heather Love count as high quality scholarly sources. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy or some rando’s Tumblr do not. This is not primarily a research paper, so it is much more important to explain the concept and how it applies to your example than to find related resources. Quoting other people’s explanations is not an adequate substitute for your own analysis. Favor depth over breadth.


  • materialism
  • value
  • commodity
  • ideology
  • culture industry
  • cultural capital
  • habitus
  • melancholia
  • repressive hypothesis
  • sexuality
  • deployment of alliance and deployment of sexuality
  • power (be specific about what you mean by this; proceed with caution)
  • nation or nationalism
  • imagined community
  • borderland
  • surveillance
  • biopower
  • intersectionality (please do not choose an example of white feminism and simply note that it fails to be intersectional; in general, arguments that point to a positive presence rather than an absence will be better supported)
  • freedom (be specific about what you mean by this; proceed with caution)
  • neoliberalism
  • human capital

Sample essay plan

You are not required to structure your essay this way. This plan is offered as a guideline.


I. Introduction (300 words)

  • Introduce your keyword; describe or define what it is and/or the problem(s) that it poses
  • Provide relevant context: what key theorist(s) will you focus on, what disciplinary and/or philosophical contexts do we need to explore this keyword
  • If you are focusing on a certain aspect of the keyword, explain this.
  • The argument: here is what this keyword helps us understand and why.

II. Example (300 words)

  • Introduce and describe the example
  • Explain why it illustrates or otherwise engages the keyword

III. Development (600 words)

  • Further analysis of the example, drawing on theoretical writings about the keyword
  • Explain what theoretical writings about the keyword help us understand about the example, what problems it reveals (and whether they can be resolved), what unforeseen connections the keyword helps us make and why.

IV. Conclusion (300 words)

  • What we now know about the example that we didn’t know before
  • What the example helps us see about the keyword that might not have been obvious, and/or limitations of the keyword in accounting for the example