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.
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.
This came up in a Google search of “something hard to do.” It’s vastly harder than what academics pretend is work. 1942 photograph of carpenter at work on Douglas Dam, Tennessee (TVA). Alfred T. Palmer, Farm Security Administration, 1942.
A friend about to teach his first course texted me the other day to ask, in essence, how hard course readings should be. In particular, when you’re teaching a political science course, should you be willing to assign “best-of-breed” articles to students who might not have the methodological or other technical skills to actually understand them?
There is no good answer to this question, and it depends crucially on two factors:
- How big is the gulf between students’ preparedness (and willingness to work) and the difficulty of the reading material?
- How much do you as an instructor plan to work to bridge that gap?
Instructors choosing course materials should be brutally honest with themselves about both questions, but especially the latter, if they care most about students’ ability to get something out of the class–besides, that is, the sheen of “knowingness” that “good” students are adept at performing.
My rule of thumb is that instructors who specialize in a course massively overestimate how familiar students are with their course material. I’ve come to believe that, especially in an introductory course, my baseline shouldn’t be “everyone knows” this or that fact but that “everyone knows” the wrong set of facts–that, in essence, I’m not working with people who have limited knowledge but, instead, with people who might have negative knowledge. The higher up the academic ladder one climbs, the higher the baseline can be, but instructors nevertheless need to always make sure that people they work with have some idea of what a basket is before they launch into Advanced Filigrees of Basket-Weaving. The result of assigning tough articles without the proper support system, however, is to be avoided: glassy-eyed students barely able to pick apart an article–and much less likely to be engaged in subsequent classes.