Monday, April 11, 2011

Let Me Review the Literature

No! Please Stop!!!  I am catching up on stuff I need to read--articles to review for journals, MA papers that need comments, and dissertation chapters.*  The most painful part is reading the obligatory review of the literature.  Part of the academic ritual is to show that one has read the stuff in the field: to please one's advisers to show them that you know what others have said; to please journal article reviewers so that their own work is cited and not slighted; and to put the question/answer at hand in context.  The funny thing is that if one focuses on the last, one should be in good shape.
*  My PhD students have largely learned to avoid subjecting me to these reviews as I have given them heaps of painful feedback over the years.  The post today is due to the other two categories of folks.
So, the tendency is to label a section of a chapter or an article "Literature Review" which, for all intents and purposes can be read as "Beware, here lies boring and largely irrelevant stuff."  There are two ways to write this stuff (well, more than two, but why not dichotomize wherever one can): list a heap of stuff written in the field; or discuss why previous work is insufficient and how one is building one's argument by relying on the various arguments made by others.  If the latter, then name the section or sections more descriptively.

If you cannot cut all the literature that you think is tangential to your argument, put it in the footnotes.
Saideman's rule number one for writing--just because you read something or learned something does not mean it is relevant.  Saideman's rule number two--edit before submitting to Steve or anyone else.  The problem is that if you bury your argument in a heap of lit review, the person reading it might not be able to find the argument or care that much when he/she does because the attention will be focused on the heap of extraneous literature and not on the logic of the argument. 

Of course, I have written crappy lit reviews and some of them have even gotten published.  Students should read stuff in the field not just to get the arguments, but figure out what styles of writing work best.  If nearly every piece in a journal has a "literature review" sub-heading, then ignore my plea and follow the model for that journal.  Read the best articles that review literatures (Annual Review of Political Science has many good ones) or heaps of pieces written by Jack Levy (like this one or this one).

More is less, less is more.  Yes, some reviewers want heaps of literature, but if you put it in the notes, you should be ok.  As long as you cite me.**

** That is a joke.  For jokes, see Marx, G. (1939).


Ben said...

You make a great point about how easy it is to bury your argument in a literature review, most people do layer it on pretty thick which is unecessary.

However, do you not think it's useful for PhD students to do a lit review? If you're not familiar with your field it can really help to know where your work fits in to the "big picture"

Steve Saideman said...

Good question. I would say that the comprehensive exam and the dissertation proposal ensures that the student has read broadly. The dissertation itself is a bad draft of a good book. Who wants to read endless pages of lit review in a good book?

Jeff said...

Writing a literature review is an exercise, not the game. It's necessary to do it (or at least to be able to do it), but that's not the point of the endeavor. Think of how a professional athlete does, say, wind sprints. It's not so s/he can be good at wind sprints; it's so s/he can go out and win a tennis match or basketball game. Same with literature reviews - you can't know what you're arguing until you know what has come before you. But once you're at the point where you know your argument, the piece you write has to be about your argument, not what's come before.

Steve Saideman said...

I am not opposed to individuals writing lit reviews. I am opposed to individuals imposing them on others. Write whatever you want but when you want to put together a dissertation proposal, a chapter or an article, think not of reviewing the literature but think of building an argument.