Forum on Keywords

Topic Director: Lisa Mitchell 
Professor, South Asia Studies

Global keywords — mobile concepts and their genealogies, histories, structures of meaning, translations and adaptions across time and space. The Wolf Humanities Center's 2024–2025 topic explores interdisciplinary methods for tracking ideas in motion through careful attention to keywords and the larger fields they reflect and shape. How do keywords point to the movement of ideas and concepts and to the shifts in their meanings and impacts as they travel across time, languages, and contexts? 

In 1976, Raymond Williams first published his widely read Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society, a work variously classified as “cultural history, historical semantics, history of ideas, social criticism, literary history and sociology.” This year’s topic anticipates the 2026 fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Williams’ influential volume by bringing together scholars invested in a global imagining of the keywords that animate cultural and societal understandings, practices, projects, and exchanges across the world, drawing not just from English but from the myriad of languages in which people think, write, and share ideas.

Some efforts to track the mobility of concepts and keywords have focused on their diffusion from a point of origin outward, while others focus on local projects into which transnationally circulating ideas are recruited, embedded, and deployed. Still others highlight the “braiding” and “entanglements” of knowledges or the intermediaries, “middles,” and “transversals” through which ideas are made mobile. Keywords are sometimes associated with origins, but also get translated, adapted for new projects, interwoven into new frameworks, and introduced into new contexts. In the process, the movement of ideas produces new lexicons and reshapes the meanings of adjacent and related terms, concepts, and fields. 

Projects may include attention to single keywords or concepts that have circulated widely or been translated with profound and diverse impacts, or they may consider the models, methods, and innovations used to track attention to keywords in specific contexts. Others might attend to the broader projects or lexicons within which keywords reside or are introduced. As collections, lexicons are sets of words used by persons or associated with languages, dialects, specialized fields, or branches of knowledge. In the form of dictionaries, glossaries, catalogues, vocabularies, and word lists, lexicons also reflect efforts to document, capture, and even fix that which is always in motion. Such efforts often accompany the emergence of newly recognizable identities; transnational, national or regional movements; or emerging fields of knowledge. In this sense, documentary efforts to produce lexicons or collections of keywords are particular to specific time periods, locations, projects, and entities (nations, organizations, professions, etc.), and these, too, can be objects of our analysis. Still other projects might explore the limits of keywords, asking what the attention to keywords might obscure rather than what it illuminates.

Together, inspired by Raymond Williams’ attention to “strong, difficult and persuasive words,” the 2024–2025 forum will track changing relationships between words and what they represent, particularly as these are influenced by various historical forces and forms of movement—circulation, translation, migration, mass media, forms of colonization and resistance. On the eve of the fiftieth anniversary of Williams’ publication, this year’s topic asks what a global collection of such keywords might look like—one that crosses languages and disciplines. What do transnational, global, or mobile keywords map and how have the objects of their mapping changed over time? When and why do new keywords or lexicons appear? How can we utilize keywords to track ideas in motion and changes in meanings over time? What conditions makes some words “key” and others not? 

The Wolf Humanities Center invites members of the scholarly community and broader public to join us in tracking ideas in motion across languages and cultures and their embedding within new contexts through a wide range of seminars and public events.


Lisa Mitchell, Topic Director
Jamal J. Elias, Director, Wolf Humanities Center
August 2023