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Typical questions

“Define X.”

“What is an X?”

“Choose N terms from the following list and define them.”


  • State the term to be defined.
  • State the class of objects or concepts to which the term belongs.
  • Differentiate the term from other members of the class by listing the term's distinguishing characteristics.

To define an object or term thoroughly you can use some of the following:

  • details, which describe the term
  • examples and incidents
  • comparisons to familiar terms
  • negation, to state what the term is not
  • classification (i.e., to break the term down into parts)
  • examination of origins or causes
  • examination of results, effects, or uses


Below are examples of these sets of ideas in action, designed to show both the process of definition at the core of the question, and the relative complexity involved.

Q: What is meant by the term ‘neoliberalism’? 
A: ‘Neoliberalism’ is a confusing and contested concept, often praised or reviled, but with proponents and opponents typically referring to a range of different principles and policies [Note that it is reasonable and often sensible to acknowledge complexity and ambiguity – always remember that you don’t have to apologise for the fact that academics and others cannot agree even on the definition of terms!]

In its narrowest and most obvious sense, ‘neoliberalism’ is a term describing those economic policies seeking to introduce or reintroduce market forces and mechanisms to society’s allocation of resources. This ‘neoliberalism’ has been an academic discourse – amongst other things, an ideological orientation, an economic theory (or theories), and a school (both a school of thought and a set of institutions promoting these ideas). But it has also been a set of government policies, as these ideas have formed the basis for many government’s economic principles.
[Note here that these sentences consider neoliberalism as both theory and policy, related but distinct from each other, and not to be confused]

It is important not to conflate economic neoliberalism with political liberalism, though there are some areas of overlap, and indeed there are common origins: neoliberalism asserts a return to ‘liberal’ economic principles – the ‘classical’ economic theory of Adam Smith and his disciples. Liberalism as a political tradition, however, is often at odds with the results as well as the principles of ‘neoliberalism’. For instance, whilst neoliberalism might champion the market in the deregulation of media ownership, political liberals might regret the loss of diversity and plurality. Confusingly, therefore, ‘neoliberalism’ is often associated with ‘neoconservatism’.
[Here, there is an attempt to say what neoliberalism is not, but also comparison between political and economic liberalism]

Neoliberalism is not just an economic theory, however. It is also, clearly, a political phenomenon. Far from merely returning to a ‘free market’, a laissez faire economic policy, or a dismantling of the state, neoliberalism in action also requires government action and intervention. In sum, neoliberalism might be reduced to a triad – deregulation, privatisation, and cutbacks (in welfare spending) – but this cannot be accomplished without the active and often aggressive policing of the consequences.
[In these sentences there is more negation, but also differentiation and classification]

A key example of neoliberalism in action is British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s deregulation of financial markets in Britain, the so-called ‘Big Bang’ that took effect in October 1986. On the one hand this deregulation of government controls on the movement of capital allowed the City of London to regain its prominence in global financial markets; but on the other, it can be blamed for some of the scandals and failures in these markets, making possible, along with similar deregulation all over the world, in the global financial collapse of 2008.
[Clearly many examples could be appended, but here is one…]

[This entire, extended example shows that ‘definition’ is often quite complex – not at all akin to a dictionary definition of a word – you may well need to think carefully about many or all of the different elements and processes listed above.]