How to find phobic stimuli

A Dictionary of Psychology
October 5, 2001

Writing a dictionary - unlike writing, say, a monograph - requires an authoritative style, an ability to communicate in clear but concise terms, an extensive knowledge of the subject matter, and a willingness to learn about topics not in one's immediate specialism. Fortunately, Andrew Colman appears to possess all of these qualities and his Dictionary of Psychology is the impressive result.

The 10,500-plus entries cover all of the major areas of psychology at a level that would address the needs of most "mainstream" psychology undergraduates. The size of the volume, with its 844 pages and hard cover, means that it is not particularly portable and is more likely to stay on the bookshelf to be consulted from time to time, but that is hardly remarkable for a dictionary. More important is the question of whether an undergraduate would really be prepared to shell out £25 for a book of this kind, given that it would be unlikely to achieve the status of a required text. It might make a good birthday present from a doting grandparent, though.

Dictionary writers inevitably set themselves up as arbitrators of knowledge, in that the process of defining terms is also the process of assuming authority over meanings. The author has given himself the task of correcting common misunderstandings, which he does efficiently, if sometimes to the point of verging on pedantry. But then it is a difficult balance to strike, and equivocation is not helpful, either to the reader or to the author.

The problem is that postmodern society and the absence of central authority structures makes unequivocal agreement about the exact meaning of a particular term far from straightforward. New jargon proliferates, and existing words change their meanings. And we all have our own betes noires. I personally, for example, found it unfortunate that "psychotropic" has been defined as equivalent to "psychoactive" - it is a common enough error in modern usage, but ignores the strict meaning of the two terms. Promoting psychological growth is not exactly the same as being psychologically active, after all. But the author is by no means alone in that error, and it is a moot point whether - or when - a commonly accepted misusage such as that should become accepted as the "real" meaning of the term.

Overall, the coverage is very strong indeed in the clinical and biological fields, strong in cognitive, reasonably competent in developmental and comparative, but weaker in the social psychology area. There is, for example, no mention of major theories such as social-representation theory or self-categorisation theory, or of the social-cognitive (as opposed to the strictly cognitive) usage of terms such as anchoring and objectification. While it is always possible to pick out words that have been omitted from a volume such as this, and no dictionary can include everything, these are fairly fundamental concepts that one would expect any undergraduate studying social psychology to encounter.

The clinical and biopsychological coverage, on the other hand, is very intensive - sometimes to the point where the biological emphasis seems to have been carried to extremes. For example, the author provides a list of the various vitamins and their common sources in food. This and similar excursions are advertised as a strength of the book. The cover blurb states that the author has deliberately included technical words from other disciplines used by psychologists, including psychiatry, neuro-anatomy and statistics. Unfortunately, though, these are not paralleled by equivalent excursions into neighbouring disciplines on the other side of psychology, such as sociology or anthro-pology, even though these are equally frequently used by psychologists. I am not altogether convinced that a list of vitamins is more important to a psychology student than a definition of labelling theory.

That said, the book has many strengths and is certainly to be recommended. One useful touch that I have not seen in other dictionaries is Appendix I, which consists of a list of phobias and phobic stimuli. The section allows quick and easy reference to what is often fairly obscure material, although one suspects that it will really find its niche in providing material for the annual departmental quiz (fear of underground trains? Bathysiderodromophobia, of course!). Appendix II is also helpful, consisting as it does of an extensive list of abbreviations - something that most of us have struggled with in the past. Having a convenient text available to look them up quickly will be a definite asset. I am pleased to have it on my bookshelf.

Nicky Hayes is lecturer in social psychology, University of Bradford.

A Dictionary of Psychology

Author - Andrew A. Colman
ISBN - 0 19 866211 4
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £25.00
Pages - 844

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