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The theory toolbox: critical concepts for the humanities, arts, and social sciences

The theory toolbox: critical concepts for the humanities, arts, and social sciences

Nealon, Jeffrey T. (Jeffrey Thomas), author; Giroux, Susan Searls, 1968- author

This text involves students in understanding and using the tools of critical social and literary theory the first day of class. It is an ideal first introduction before students encounter more difficult readings from critical and postmodern perspectives. This text involves students in understanding and using the "tools" of critical social and literary theory from the first day of class. It is an ideal first introduction before students encounter more difficult readings from critical and postmodern perspectives. Nealon and Searls Giroux describe key concepts and illuminate each with an engaging inquiry that asks students to consider deeper and deeper questions. Written in students' own idiom, and drawing its examples from the social world, literature, popular culture, and advertising, The Theory Toolbox offers students the language and opportunity to theorize rather than positioning them to respond to theory as a reified history of various schools of thought. Clear and engaging, it avoids facile description, inviting students to struggle with ideas and the world by virtue of the book's relentless challenge to common assumptions and its appeal to common sense. Updated throughout, the second edition of The Theory Toolbox includes a discussion of new media, as well as two new chapters on life and nature

eBook, Electronic resource, Book. English. Electronic books.
Second edition.
Published Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., [2012]
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Statement of responsibility: Jeffrey T. Nealon and Susan Searls Giroux
ISBN: 0742570517, 9780742570511
Note: Previous edition: 2003.
Note: Includes bibliographical references and index.
Physical Description: xii, 278 pages : illustrations (black and white)
Series: Culture and politics series
Subject: Critical theory.; Social action.; Sociology & anthropology; Literary theory; Sociology; Society.
Reproduction: Electronic reproduction. Askews and Holts. Mode of access: World Wide Web.
Series Title: Culture and politics series.
Other formats: Also available in printed form ISBN 9780742570504


  1. Acknowledgments
  2. Why Theory?
  3. Author/ity
  4. Reading
  5. Subjectivity
  6. Culture
  7. Multiculturalism
  8. Popular CultureMedia CultureMedia Culture 2.0
  9. Ideology
  10. History
  11. Space/Time
  12. Posts
  13. PostmodernismPostculturalismPostcolonialism
  14. Differences
  15. GenderQueerRaceClassConcluding Differences
  16. Life
  17. Biopower
  18. Resistance
  19. The Economics of Culture; or, the Biopower Business
  20. Nature
  21. Animality
  22. Agency
  23. CreditsIndexAbout the Authors

Author note

Jeffrey T. Nealon

is Liberal Arts Research Professor of English at Penn State University.

Susan Searls Giroux

is assistant professor of English at McMaster University.


The Theory Toolboxis original and unusual, breaking the standard mold of social theory textbooks. It puts itself in the young theory student's shoes and imagines what s/he needs to know, and how best to convey difficult material. A distinctive feature of this book is its interdisciplinarity, borrowing concepts from humanities disciplines in order to enrich social and sociological theory. My theory students will definitely need this path-breaking book in their toolboxes.||They're back! Nealon and Sarls Giroux still pack more thoughtful questions and more useful information into the second edition of their 'toolbox' than multi-volume encyclopedias. If you can find a better guide for both beginners and more advanced students to the major intellectual challenges of our time, go ahead and buy it. Meanwhile, the readers of this handy (and witty) little text will already be writing the works that will be discussed in the third edition.||In our deeply anti-intellectual climate, wherein faith trumps reason and twittering has displaced thinking, Nealon and Searls Giroux perform the great act of showing how and why thinking still matters. From their opening engagement with the punk song 'Why Theory?' they give us an impassioned argument for the important uses of theory. As the title suggests,The Theory Toolbox, instead of simply reviewing schools of theory and criticism, aims to help students figure out what they can do with theoretical concepts as tools for living.The Theory Toolboxengenders pragmatic encounters with theorists from Nietzsche to Deleuze to Agamben and provides productive engagements with key concepts such as agency and ideology. Darwin, Black Sabbath, and Facebook are among a wide variety of examples that Nealon and Searls Giroux deploy to demonstrate why and how theory matters in everyday life. This edition presents compelling new chapters on Life and Nature animated by Foucault and the animal rights movement. For a generation growing up amidst the ruins of capitalism and the endless distractions of social media, this book offers a path for all students desiring to become thinking citizens.||Students quickly learn to employ theoretical concepts in their own work. The authors support this development by examining theory in relation to material that may at first seem familiar but that the authors then encourage the students to question in complex ways. The new chapters introduce important emerging areas of scholarship that students and instructors should find appealing.||I have usedThe Theory Toolboxseveral times in my Communication Theory classes, and the response from my students was extremely positive. The theories and concepts in the Toolbox are clearly presented and approachable despite the fact that these ideas are often difficult to cover at the undergraduate level. Nealon and Searls Giroux explain complex ideas using everyday poetry, music and pop culture artifacts that are readily accessible to everyone. They really get my students thinking and engaged. The new chapters on Life and Nature promise similar thought-provoking and lively discussions.||Students findThe Theory Toolboxisn't about learning theory through narrow interpretive lenses but thinking critically through theorizing and questioning perspectives.||

The Theory Toolbox

is essential and required reading in my undergraduate and graduate architectural history and theory courses. The book is particularly useful as an excellent introduction to basic concepts that students in humanities, science, and design need to engage in meaningful discussion of culture and society. Through timely examples from popular culture and working questions that stimulate active discussion both in the classroom and in the online environment,

The Theory Toolbox

is my go-to guide for critical concepts as it inspires and engenders critical thinking and reasoned dialogue for the beginning theory student.


As the title suggests, this work by Nealon and Giroux can be considered an assemblage of tools (or approaches) that students may use to examine contemporary culture. Unlike other introductions to theory, such as Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory (2nd ed., 1996), The Theory Toolbox is not organized by theoretical schools or movements but by concepts such as "Reading," "History," and "Authority." Each chapter introduces a concept, demonstrates how that concept can be used to analyze an instance of contemporary culture, and then ends with questions for readers to ponder. A bibliography with suggestions for further reading follows. The Theory Toolbox was first published in 2003, and many of the chapters in the second edition appear verbatim. New to this edition are sections such as "Media Culture 2.0" and entire chapters titled "Life" and "Nature." The added sections amount to 25 percent new material and merit a new edition. This book is geared toward lower-division undergraduates, and the tone, language, and examples reflect this focus. For example, YouTube, Facebook, and Black Sabbath are analyzed or questioned. Instructors using theory in their classroom teaching may find this book a useful means of introducing difficult concepts to first-year students in a manner they can understand. All undergraduates will find this a valuable companion for analyzing contemporary culture.

CHOICE||As a first introduction for the perplexed and confused to critical and cultural theory, there's no better place to start thanThe Theory Toolbox. The addition of chapters on Life and Nature in this second edition are welcome. They are written as engagingly and insightfully as the rest of the book, and as with the rest, these chapters tease out the ways in which the natural order is made to seem natural through biopower and the defense of an uncritical line between humanity and animality. With its clear, concise, and accurate accounts of often complex theories, instructors will find this an excellent addition to any theory course; with its provocative working questions and up-to-date, funny examples, students will find this book to be illuminating and exhilarating.