By Frank W. Elwell


The difference between the right word and the almost-right word is like the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

--Mark Twain


Consistent with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, I believe that in order to truly master a discipline you must first master its vocabulary. Accordingly, I have created this glossary to help students master the vocabulary used in my classes as well as in other works of sociology. I began developing the glossary in 1996. Since that time it has been freely accessible on the web—first at University of Southern Queensland in Australia that spring (their winter), then at Murray State University from fall of 1996 to 2000, and now at the Rogers State University One Net site since 2000. I have used the glossary extensively in my teaching of introductory sociology, social problems, social theory, and cultural ecology ever since. I give my students fifteen to thirty words to master for each weekly quiz. Many students have found this not only a useful way of earning points (something they often obsess over) but also, more importantly, a path to a much more sophisticated understanding of the discipline. Those who use the glossary extensively (and this would mainly be my students as all my classes must master some basic terminology), will note that there is some bias toward macrosociological terms in general, and ecological-evolutionary terms in particular. I have also substantively modified some definitions common to Marvin Harris’s cultural materialism to make them more compatible with sociological concepts and theory.

A little about the process of creation: I began by consulting numerous glossaries, dictionaries, and texts in the social sciences. Rather than copying somebody else's definition I would read the definitions from several sources and, combined with my own understanding and use of the terms, create my own definition. I continue adding to the glossary when I encounter a term that is especially useful, newly coined, or that I have missed in the past, again going to several sources before composing my definition of the term. I have noticed in the last 10 years or so that large parts of my glossary have appeared at other websites and even in copyrighted publications, often without attribution. This is wrong. All are free to reproduce this glossary in whole or in part, but I ask that you acknowledge your source. In its 2013 iteration, this Glossary appears as an Appendix in my book Sociocultural Systems: Principles of Structure and Change. I intend to continue to update it as the need and opportunity arise.