Attention conservation notice: Doug Mack has written a good, short, breezy book about the territorial possessions of the United States, a topic that should help to shake conventional ideas of what the “United States” is.
One of the great thrills of social science should be the constant rediscovery of the world as begging for explanation. Viewing social life as a dynamic process should prompt a constant unsettling with the superficially —a disenchantment with received wisdom and estrangement from the familiar. When we flatter ourselves, social scientists preen themselves on exactly those dimensions: interrogating this and wrestling with that.
Of course, social life being infinite, most of the time we fail at this task. Intellectual fashions provide the most obvious evidence that much of what seems to be deep engagement really arises from fads. More fundamentally, however, researchers often proceed from “stylized facts” about parts of the social world that are merely better drawn caricatures of social life than the non-specialist presents. Even if we manage to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of conventional wisdom in some particular niche, the necessity of producing a steady stream of work that engages our fellows and our blind spots about our own ignorance (compounded by the epistemic arrogance that a professional standing as an “expert” breeds).
I am at least as guilty of these tendencies as the next social scientist. There is one small region in which I am slightly less guilty than my fellows, however: I think — I hope — that I take the peculiar composite nature of the United States government a little more seriously than the average scholar of international relations. For me, the “United States” is never a unitary actor, even if its outward appearance sometimes puts such a mask over its structurally divided government. Instead, I view the country as a patchwork actor, one marked by multiple traditions of identities, governed by two major parties who alternate according to a coin flip, and divided into fifty states and territories.
It’s the “and territories” that, as Doug Mack describes in his new book The Not-Quite States of America, people often forget. A chance encounter with ceremonial quarters honoring Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands jolts Mack into realizing that millions of people—many, although not all, American citizens—live in what can only be described as a U.S. empire. Unsettled by this estrangement from the familiar, he sets out to visit them to learn about their people and their culture to make them more comprehensible. Mack’s book is a sugar-coated challenge to the way you will think about the everyday politics of “America”– and a surprisingly sharp (if inadvertent) challenge to categories IR and comparative scholars employ to divide the world.
No man is an island, and no thesis is wholly original. By writing a thesis, you are engaging in a conversation with those who have written on your topic and topics that you will claim (and establish!) are closely related to what you are studying. However, you are also trying to show that you are adding something to the debate. Consequently, your goal in the literature review section is to show that you
- have identified, read, and analyzed relevant arguments
- understand and respect the contributions of prior authors
- know how they (or at least some subset of ‘they’) got it wrong
These goals conflict! “I respect you, but you are wrong” is a tough line to follow. I’ll discuss strategies below to address that.
Throughout, though, I want you to remember:
- the literature review is a supporting actor. The star is your thesis (and its accompanying theory and research design).
- you need to straddle humility and confidence in demonstrating your contribution.
This page supplements resources such as the UNC Writing Center’s guide to writing literature reviews and Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s work (especially on using Excel to structure lit reviews!), which you should also read.
I’ve written before about my interest in the gendered resource curse–the notion endorsed by eminent scholar Michael Ross and (in a different version) by my co-author Yu-Ming Liou and me that “petroleum perpetuates patriarchy”. In our theory, oil rents have promoted the Saudi government’s (and other conservative oil-rich governments’) ability to promote policies that affirm gender segregation. This process has reached its apex in Saudi Arabia, with massive oil rents, a longstanding clerico-monarchical alliance, and a conservative social tradition.
As part of our article in International Studies Quarterly exploring this thesis, we found that we needed to turn to journalists to help us flesh out some of the “soft tissue” that was being lost in the regressions and data points we were spending much of our time with. (We also consulted scholarly works, especially Madawi al-Rasheed’s A Most Masculine State.) One of the journalists who seemed to consistently produce interesting material was Katherine Zoepf, whose examination of the politics of lingerie shop employments–a skirmish in a broader three-way argument among male traditionalists, female reformers, and Westernizers about the degree to which women should be kept secluded–proved invaluable to helping us trace out the dynamics of this system.
Zoepf has now published a very good book about her experiences as a journalist interacting with women throughout the Arab world, from Syria and Lebanon to Egypt and Saudi Arabia. Much of her book reads like a combination of journalism and informal social science, but the details she has unearthed are fascinating and will be of interest to anyone who cares about ordinary lived experiences, the politics of women’s status, and the ways that “modernity” can manifest. Zoepf maps how women create their own spaces as both members of the liberaliyeen and as sisters within secretive, conservative religious networks to the manner in which male expectations circumscribe their freedoms and the state violates their hard-won freedoms–and, sometimes, their very bodies.
The following is a draft of advice for undergraduates working with me on writing senior theses. I’m intentionally leaving all the citations and academia flag-planting out of this; moreover, this is advice to my students, not anyone else’s, so don’t take this as gospel or hegemonic domineering.
What is a “thesis”?
You will spend this semester writing a “thesis”. By convention, we refer to the 35-50 pages you will produce with that word, but it’s worth unpacking why such a long paper is referred to by that name. After all, a “thesis” is just a claim that you want to put forward (and, ideally, test). You can state a thesis easily: for instance, “Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ the same as despair, fear, and assurance of salvation” or “The economic effects of oil rents include the perpetuation of patriarchy.” So what about the other 34.9 pages you’ll write?
The answer is that we don’t care about them separate from your thesis. They are only the supporting stonework in the arch for which the thesis is the keystone. And like a keystone, your thesis will both be supported by and support the rest of the work. We refer to the whole work as a “thesis” in recognition, conscious or otherwise, of the importance of this central claim.
Theses–and here I’m referring to the claims, not the document you’ll produce–may be stated at any length. There is often a ‘gut’ version–“Voters blame politicians for random events”–and a more precise version, as in Achen and Bartels’s seminal paper on “blind retrospection”:
Switch analogies for a moment: regard the thesis as a Slinky that you can stretch or compress. Both “gut” and “precise” forms of the thesis express the same argument, but they have been reshaped to fit the space available (as well as the intellectual requirements of your task). But whatever shape or size the thesis appears to take at the moment, it must remain the same argument. A chief quality-control task for you as knowledge worker is ensuring that your expression of the thesis remains as analytically precise and consistent as possible, whether said in punchy Anglo-Saxon words or elaborated in scientific (or pseudo-scientific) Latinate verbiage.