The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Tag: methodology

To Review the Literature or Not to Review the Literature

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).

Methodological Difficulties

When what one is doing is predominantly analysis of literature, the imposition of precise and minutely developed methodologies can be difficult. Nevertheless, it has not escaped the overall turn towards methodologisation of aademic research of recent decades. For sure, there are ore hold-outs in literature than in other fields. One of the world’s most famous literary critics at this moment, Harold Bloom of Yale University insists that “[t]he individual self is the only method”. This recalls an old dictum of T.S. Eliot’s: “There is no method but to be very intelligent”. Should this remain so when the methodological approach has taken over almost every field of knowledge?

If you don’t think, by the way, that the methodological approach has taken over, you should apply for funding for your research. A section of the application will be set aside for delineation of method, and citing Bloom won’t get you off the hook. For the lover of literature, no method is sufficient for the study of a worthwhile work because such a work is, by definition, sui generis. The will to study literature is dependent on a belief in the singularity of the great work.

Therefore, to really dedicate one’s studies to a methodological approach to literary criticism is to deny literature’s worth and remove the possibility of demonstrating such worth. Many people do deny such worth, at least in practice, by not reading literature. Which is fine, but to institutionalize such a denial of worth, a denial of singularity of a work of literature is to devalue the whole project of literature, and hence of literary criticism.

This is not to advocate an uncritical attitude towards literature, simply to contend that such criticism should be the work in itself and as a singularity, not the kind of sweeping theoretical criticism involved when one invokes, say, Foucault, and performs a Foucauldian criticism of a text.

I’m not even suggesting a Foucauldian reading might not be quite enlightening about some texts, but I am suggesting that a preconceived methodology whereby a Foucauldian or other reading is imposed on some set texts is the kind of reading that gets no one anywhere. No literary texts should be deliberately framed by any one theory, as if that somehow contains them.

The problem with theories of texts are that their sophistication is inversely proportional to their practical workability. It’s easy to construct a mechanical methodology of the structuralist variety that can be used on texts and that – so long as the method is kept quite simple, like Barthes’ division of textual units into functions and indices – can be applied uniformly. The only problem is, dividing a text into its functions and indices doesn’t get anywhere near giving us a comprehensive or definitive account of how texts are written, how they are read, how they relate to each other. The vagueness with which the terms of analysis must be defined to made them relevant to all texts prevents this. So a science of the text is partlally impossible, and partially irrelevant.

Of more sophisticated methodologies, such as those of Foucault and Derrida, one should first note one thing: they’re not supposed to be methods of reading texts. They are private and idiosyncratic views of society – patently, certainly in Foucault’s case, related to psychological quirks of the author. They weren’t intended to be generalizable methodologies, and it’s somewhat baffling how suddenly these particular authors became, not just very widely read in academia, but seen as holding the keys to viewing all texts, and off having an insight that is reproducible by the mastery and application of method. This is not the way that older authors of influence, say Nietzsche, were read, by and large. And rightly so, for this approach precludes originality and critical thinking. Ironic, given it’s called critical theory, but the “critical” element is rigidly pre-ordained: the exact type of criticism is dictated by, say, Foucauldianism as an academic construct. One can only make the same tiresome points being made within the academy as a whole.

So, my conclusion is that one should not read authors as sources of methodologies – as telling you exactly how to read. There is no author, or combination of authors (as in Zizek, whose method is that a proper mixture of Marx + Lacan = Theory of Everything) that can define one’s reading, no matter how much one tries to apply it. there is always some remnant of self left , or of that which cannot be defined within a framework or theory. If one tries to frame one’s reading as a theory of some description one will soon find that there is a self always peeking through. Even if one believes that that self is but a social construction. The point is not that there is an essential self, but that the complexities of any individual are so great as to be irreducible to formulae. In that negative sense, there is individuality, at least until science reaches such a pitch of prefection that it can predict and control everything about each person. Until then, the notion of individuality has at least as much explanatory power for me, you and everyone as notions of social construction, and while individuality remains, we read always partly as ourselves, not through method alone. It is this kind of reading that literary academics should practice and defend.

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