To Review the Literature or Not to Review the Literature

by Mark Wallace

Having reached endgame in the writing of my thesis, I now have to reflect on some of the choices I made. Unorthodox choices are the hardest, the ones that will be questioned closely in the viva. And I have made some of those. Case in point: I have no explicit literature review in my thesis. General handbooks on theses always simply assume a literature review chapter will be present. There’s Introduction, Literature Review, Methodology, then the Data Analysis or Case Studies chapters, depending on the subject/ discipline. This is derived from a social science model, but is presented as simply the default mode in all the guides I have consulted. The idea of not having a literature review just doesn’t come up. This may be to an extent a reflection on my university and its emphasis on the scientistic and business models to the neglect of the humanistic, with a library to match. However, it also seems to be the standard, even in guides specifically targeted at humanities, like this one.

But my thesis will have no literature review. One reason for this is that the literature review is a place where “the study is located within a specific theoretical tradition or perspective” (Paul Oliver, Writing Your Thesis, SAGE, 2008, 6). A humanistic study, I maintain, is not about adopting a specific perspective, but rather about trying to attain the widest perspective possible. This may involve making use of any available methodological tool at any specific moment. This renders the methodology section of the thesis problematic as well as the literature review. My “methodology” is partially a defense of retaining an open methodology (which comes perilously close to having no methodology).

“The new thesis should not be seen as an isolated study, but as a study which exists in an academic tradition, and the purpose of the literature review is to try to establish the nature of that tradition” (Oliver, 93). Of course, my thesis is in an academic tradition, and is written according to academic standards. But I nevertheless maintain that by engaging with the humanist tradition, it is making a claim to being somewhat sui generis, and that this is not simply a formality, but a consequential fact with regard to method and structure. It is not, evidently enough, exactly the same as any other thesis, and is a product of a particular consciousness in a particular situation; dealing with particular source materials in particular combination. To exactly define the tradition from which it springs would place all of the analysis in the body of the thesis under intolerable strain, as it would have to be justified not only in terms of an argument, but also in terms of a tradition.

In terms of writing conventions and (mostly) basic structure, it is indeed a standard academic thesis, but epistemologically, it does not aim to privilege any specific tradition over all others. Such epistemological specificity is only possible, it seems to me, in a project where the methodology itself is very specific. A quantitative study using positivistic methods: yes, that has a clear epistemology, very well defined and very limited. It has its place, obviously, and a large place under current academic conditions, but it is not all. I’m not anti- the defined and restricted epistemology of quantitative research, by any means, and believe that it can be incorporated into even humanistic study. I argue only that a space be retained for the non-methodological investigation. In my thesis, I rely at certain important points on Paul Feyerabend:

We must, therefore, keep our options open and we must not restrict ourselves in advance. Epistemological prescriptions may look splendid when compared with other epistemological prescriptions, or with general principles but who can guarantee that they are the best way to discover, not just a few isolated ‘facts’, but also some deep-lying secrets of nature? (Against Method, Verso, 2010, 4)

By keeping our options open, who knows what we might uncover? Perhaps nothing. But the point is that we don’t know exactly what knowledge is, so we can’t impose methodologies on it; not if we have any broad purposes, at any rate. We can’t limit it to a certain academic tradition which we can partition off from the rest of history, culture and nature.

The points I have been making problematize the notion of methodology just as much as that of literature review. I have dealt with the problem of methodology in my thesis by having a formal methodology, but a fairly capacious one, and by stressing the need to think and analyze openly rather than, or certainly in addition to, methodologically. My methodology chapter has also incorporated a measure of literature review, for in delineating my method, I have referred to many others in similar areas of research, This overcomes, I hope, the need for a separate literature review chapter; such a chapter would only serve to delineate too narrowly the field in which I operate. The onus would move onto my analysis to respond to and interact with the field laid out in the critical review, whereas the objects of study may demand and reward quite other methods of study. It is possible to be too narrow, I feel, to go into too much depth in one field, a field which has been created through the artificial processes of academia and which, the more it attains a sophisticated methodology peculiar to itself, the more it cuts itself off from history and forgets that academic research is not an end in itself, and an increase in theoretical sophistication is not necessarily an epistemological advance.

If academic research is not an end, then, what is the end? Here, I haven’t gotten very far, so for the moment I just go with Feyerabend again: “The attempt to increase liberty, to lead a full and rewarding life, and the corresponding attempt to discover the secrets of nature and of man” (4).