This is a genuine question. What is it for?

We are told that it is there to highlight the wider literature the surrounds our research. It is to:

  • Situate your research focus within the context of the wider academic community in your field
  • Report your critical review of the relevant literature
  • Identify a gap within that literature that your research will attempt to address

However, I have found that when I tried to integrate important tomes on the development of the RAF with accounts that deal with Air Chief Marshal Sir Trafford Leigh-Mallory’s leadership it became too large and unwieldy.

Originally, when I began my research my introduction had a literature review that dealt with both elements, however, it ended up being about 8,000 words in length, or 10% of my thesis. It dealt with the opposing views of Leigh-Mallory that are characterised by Bill Newton Dunn’s biography and Vincent Orange’s work. It then moved on to look at the various strands of literature on the development of British air power; noticeably the role of the RFC/RAF in the First World War, the inter-war RAF, education in the military, the Battle of Britain, the role of RAF Fighter Command, and the planning and conduct of Operation OVERLORD. Added to this was the necessary literature review that went into my theory chapter on leadership theory. This in itself ended up at a couple of thousand words. Too much!

However, about a month ago I made one of those decisions that seemed to solve my problem. I chose to get rid of the ‘operational’ material and merge the overview of the debate over Leigh-Mallory with the leadership material. This led to a leaner introduction and theory chapter, which I think situates my research into both of my fields. It also clearly identifies that there is a gap in the literature because of the diametrically opposed views characterised by Dunn and Orange. I then decided because of the conceptual model I am using it would be useful to have a ‘Note on Sources’ in each relevant chapter. This would allow me to link my methodology, the 360-degree appraisal method, to the subjectivity of key sources and literature. Problem solved I thought.

No. I have now decided that the chapter on which I am working needs to be split into two. However, what am I to do with the ‘Note of Sources I prepared for their forebear? I am now thinking I will try to further integrate the issues with key literature into the relevant sections of each chapter. For example, in one chapter I discuss the importance of the RAF Staff College and Imperial Defence College in terms of succession planning. One of the key sources for this is Robin Higham’s The Military Intellectuals in Britain; however, there are some key issues with his interpretation that needs to be addressed. Arguably, this could have been raised in a wider literature review in the introduction. However, having cut this I am now trying to raise this in the main body of the thesis. I think this works better as it allows me to highlight key issues throughout the thesis. Does this allow me to provide a critical review of the literature in an effective manner?

The new layout seems to make it flow better; however, I worry that I may be told no and it will require a major re-write.

Thoughts? What is it for?


9 thoughts on “What is the Point of the Literature Review?

  1. In my thesis on ‘British Strategy and Oil, 1914-1923’, I wrote a conventional literature review covering histories of the oil industry, British wartime strategy and the Middle East and also books on the oil industry written in the 1920s. Some comment on the historiography of the peace treaties and the 1922 Washington Treaty was required, but I left these until the relevant chapters.

    My supervisor was generally happy with this; the only change that he recommended, which I adopted, was to start the thesis with the comments in the 1920s books, setting a context of the contemporary opinion of British strategy towards oil.

    Not much of the viva was spent on the literary review. The examiners asked me to clarify my points of difference with a couple of works and the external examiner thanked me for being ‘very kind’ about one of his books; is anybody confident enough to have an external examiner whose books they’ve criticised in their thesis?

  2. “it ended up being about 8,000 words in length, or 10% of my thesis.”

    Is that an indication that perhaps your thesis is too broad ranging?

  3. Some context to that comment is probably appropriate. I hope my thoughts here are at least tangentially relevant to your question “what is the point of the Lit Review?”

    I think it’s a natural tendency when researching, including reviewing the literature, to want to spread our arms wide and sweep up everything, and then somehow use all of that because it’s new and exciting and interesting, and hang the word limits. That’s what I find, anyway.

    A former lecturer of mine got into a spot of bother over his masters thesis. One of the contributing factors was inadequate supervision, but another was that he was allowed to grossly exceed the normal word count. It seems he kept finding interesting things, and couldn’t resist the temptation to include them.

    On the other hand Doubler, for example, wrote his thesis on the US Army learning to fight in the bocage in 1944. Presumably he came across a LOT of material that could have been included in the thesis, because he later wrote a book based in large part on it. But the book also included numerous chapters about the US Army learning to fight in other kinds of terrain, none of which was even hinted at in the thesis, but all of which was very relevant to his core idea of the US Army being a good example of a learning organisation. All that got cut in favour of a tight, succinct thesis.

    In addition to the three points you made about its purpose (situate, report, identify), presumably a burgeoning Lit Review can also indicate if the researcher is looking too far a field or alternately if the thesis’ central question is too broad or if it has too many dependant clauses.

    I’ve no idea if this applies to you. It came to mind as I was reading your blog.


  4. I did a lot of lumping, discussing directions of thought, influential grand narratives, unexamined assumptions, etc., not each author and work. I also chose what I thought was worth discussing. In the end, you’re trying to set up your argument. As such, you might not want to do too much with it until you’ve written the whole diss and know what you need to present by way of introduction.

  5. Gents,

    Apologies for the delay in my reply. Thank you for your thoughts.

    Martin, it is interesting that you split bits too. I think this is what I am getting at. Sometimes the literature is so vast that you have to reference somewhere else. I also think this is part of the point of the thesis i.e. can you engage with the literature and how does your interpretation different.

    Jon, No I don’t think it is an indication that my thesis it too broad. However, there may be changes a foot, but more on that later. It had nothing to do with breadth but rather a change in interest, or more accurate going down a rabbit hole!

    Mark, I get your point and I think the way it is now does just that.

  6. My literature review is to be slotted into the introduction of my thesis (c.12,000 words). This is a terrifying concept. My supervisor has asked me to review four separate historiographies, which have received extensive scholarship. He said that I have to highlight the main arguments and how my work is informed by them, highlight the gaps and state how my thesis intends to fill them. I don’t know if this is conventional but I have read theses that have looked at the ‘main historiography’ in the introduction/literature review and then in a different chapter, reviewed specific arguments from within the historiography. For example, I have to review the history of psychiatry, 1900-1945 in the introduction. However, a chapter in my thesis looks at ‘stress’ – I could review the manageable amount of literature on stress in a couple of thousand words there. I don’t think there are hard and fast rules. My view on the matter: literature reviews are sent to try us!

  7. Maybe dissertation expectation are different over here in the States, but we usually dedicated most of our introduction to discussing historiography and placing our research amongst other works. So an 8,000 word literature review does not sound a bit odd to me.

  8. I seem to remember having the same issue when I was doing my MA in European History Thesis. the short answer I got from my Thesis Adviser was that a well written lit. Review shows that I am familiar enough with the topic of my thesis that I am truly bringing something new to the academic table and not just rehashing something someone else has already covered. That, and he told me to quit whining and write one. Mine ended up being about 5% of the overall paper.

    Now that I am trying to adapt my paper to a book manuscript, i find myself jettisoning most of it while only keeping a kernel.

    In your case I would talk to your adviser and see what he thinks about splitting it. It may be that there won’t be a problem. I would hope that anything which makes your thesis read better and contributes to the scholarship on your chosen subject would be acceptable. I may be wrong, lord knows there are plenty of people more wedded to details than substance in academia. Hopefully your review committee is not like that.

    Good luck!

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