Qualifying for the highest marks on offer

Syllabuses like these indicate the importance of key concepts both in the courses you’re studying, and in the essays you’re expected to write. By analysing them you not only give your essay a relevant structure, but, equally important, you qualify for the highest marks on offer.

If, at this stage, you don’t acknowledge the significance of these concepts by analysing their implications, you will almost certainly fail to analyse them in your essay. This will indicate not only that you haven’t seen the point of the question, but, more seriously, that you haven’t yet developed that thoughtful, reflective ability to question some of the most important assumptions we make when we use language. It is as if you’re saying to the examiner that you can see no reason why these concepts should raise any particular problem and, therefore, they deserve no special treatment.

In the next chapter

Despite what we said in the previous chapter, there will still be those who ask, ‘But why can’t we just look up the meaning of these words in a dictionary, rather than go through the process of analysis?’ And, of course, they’re right: with some words this is all you need to do.

Open and closed concepts

What you might describe as closed concepts usually have an unchanging, unambiguous meaning. Words like ‘bicycle’, ‘bachelor’ and ‘triangle’ each have a structure to their meaning, which is bound by logical necessity. We all agree to abide by certain conventions that rule the meaning of these words. So, if you were to say ‘this is a bicycle with one wheel or this triangle has four sides no-one would be in any doubt that you had made a logical mistake. When we use these words according to their conventions we are, in effect, allowing our understanding of the world to be structured in a particular way.

Start with the way we use them

As you can see from this, if any of the concepts in essay questions are up for grabs in this way, if there is any doubt about the way we use 16 Interpretation of the Question them, then we need to analyse them. In most cases this means we start with words we use in everyday speech, in some cases sharpening and tightening them, in others just unpacking their ambiguities. In the process, this will more often than not give us the structure of our essay, in terms of the arguments we need to explore and develop.

Learning to Analyse

Of course, not all the questions you tackle will offer up their concepts so easily as the authority/power question. In many of them the concept will hide, lurking behind the most innocent word. And in some questions it will be difficult to decide whether it’s worth analysing the concept at all  it may not be central to the issues the question raises, taking you in a direction that’s irrelevant.

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In these cases you just have to take the concept and analyse it carefully to see what’s there. In most questions you’ll find that by doing this you will open up a treasure of all sorts of ideas you can use. The question just seems to unfold before your eyes and you know exactly the arguments to pursue and the research you need to do

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