Literature Review (Historiographic Essay):
Making sense of what has been written on your topic.
GOALS OF A LITERATURE REVIEW:
Before doing work in primary sources, historians must know what has been written on their topic. They must be familiar with theories and arguments–as well as facts–that appear in secondary sources.
Before you proceed with your research project, you too must be familiar with the literature: you do not want to waste time on theories that others have disproved and you want to take full advantage of what others have argued. You want to be able to discuss and analyze your topic.
Your literature review will demonstrate your familiarity with your topic’s secondary literature.
GUIDELINES FOR A LITERATURE REVIEW:
1) LENGTH: 8-10 pages of text for Senior Theses (485) (consult with your professor for other classes), with either footnotes or endnotes and with a works-consulted bibliography. [See also the citation guide on this site.]
2) NUMBER OF WORKS REVIEWED: Depends on the assignment, but for Senior Theses (485), at least ten is typical.
3) CHOOSING WORKS:
Your literature review must include enough works to provide evidence of both the breadth and the depth of the research on your topic or, at least, one important angle of it. The number of works necessary to do this will depend on your topic. For most topics, AT LEAST TEN works (mostly books but also significant scholarly articles) are necessary, although you will not necessarily give all of them equal treatment in your paper (e.g., some might appear in notes rather than the essay).
4) ORGANIZING/ARRANGING THE LITERATURE:
As you uncover the literature (i.e., secondary writing) on your topic, you should determine how the various pieces relate to each other. Your ability to do so will demonstrate your understanding of the evolution of literature.
You might determine that the literature makes sense when divided by time period, by methodology, by sources, by discipline, by thematic focus, by race, ethnicity, and/or gender of author, or by political ideology. This list is not exhaustive. You might also decide to subdivide categories based on other criteria. There is no “rule” on divisions—historians wrote the literature without consulting each other and without regard to the goal of fitting into a neat, obvious organization useful to students.
The key step is to FIGURE OUT the most logical, clarifying angle. Do not arbitrarily choose a categorization; use the one that the literature seems to fall into. How do you do that? For every source, you should note its thesis, date, author background, methodology, and sources. Does a pattern appear when you consider such information from each of your sources? If so, you have a possible thesis about the literature. If not, you might still have a thesis.
Consider: Are there missing elements in the literature? For example, no works published during a particular (usually fairly lengthy) time period? Or do studies appear after long neglect of a topic? Do interpretations change at some point? Does the major methodology being used change? Do interpretations vary based on sources used?
Follow these links for more help on analyzing historiography and historical perspective.
5) CONTENTS OF LITERATURE REVIEW:
The literature review is a research paper with three ingredients:
a) A brief discussion of the issue (the person, event, idea). [While this section should be brief, it needs to set up the thesis and literature that follow.]
b) Your thesis about the literature
c) A clear argument, using the works on topic as evidence, i.e., you discuss the sources in relation to your thesis, not as a separate topic.
These ingredients must be presented in an essay with an introduction, body, and conclusion.
6) ARGUING YOUR THESIS:
The thesis of a literature review should not only describe how the literature has evolved, but also provide a clear evaluation of that literature. You should assess the literature in terms of the quality of either individual works or categories of works. For instance, you might argue that a certain approach (e.g. social history, cultural history, or another) is better because it deals with a more complex view of the issue or because they use a wider array of source materials more effectively. You should also ensure that you integrate that evaluation throughout your argument. Doing so might include negative assessments of some works in order to reinforce your argument regarding the positive qualities of other works and approaches to the topic.
Within each group, you should provide essential information about each work: the author’s thesis, the work’s title and date, the author’s supporting arguments and major evidence.
In most cases, arranging the sources chronologically by publication date within each section makes the most sense because earlier works influenced later ones in one way or another. Reference to publication date also indicates that you are aware of this significant historiographical element.
As you discuss each work, DO NOT FORGET WHY YOU ARE DISCUSSING IT. YOU ARE PRESENTING AND SUPPORTING A THESIS ABOUT THE LITERATURE.
When discussing a particular work for the first time, you should refer to it by the author’s full name, the work’s title, and year of publication (either in parentheses after the title or worked into the sentence).
For example, “The field of slavery studies has recently been transformed by Ben Johnson’s The New Slave (2001)” and “Joe Doe argues in his 1997 study, Slavery in America, that . . . .”
Your paper should always note secondary sources’ relationship to each other, particularly in terms of your thesis about the literature (e.g., “Unlike Smith’s work, Mary Brown’s analysis reaches the conclusion that . . . .” and “Because of Anderson’s reliance on the president’s personal papers, his interpretation differs from Barry’s”). The various pieces of the literature are “related” to each other, so you need to indicate to the reader some of that relationship. (It helps the reader follow your thesis, and it convinces the reader that you know what you are talking about.)
Each source you discuss in your paper must be documented using footnotes/endnotes and a bibliography. Providing author and title and date in the paper is not sufficient. Use correct Turabian/Chicago Manual of Style form. [See Bibliography and Footnotes/Endnotes pages.]
In addition, further supporting, but less significant, sources should be included in content foot or endnotes. (e.g., “For a similar argument to Ben Johnson’s, see John Terry, The Slave Who Was New (New York: W. W. Norton, 1985), 3-45.”)
8 ) CONCLUSION OF LITERATURE REVIEW:
Your conclusion should not only reiterate your argument (thesis), but also discuss questions that remain unanswered by the literature. What has the literature accomplished? What has not been studied? What debates need to be settled?