finding patterns in the literature

A key part of the PhD proposal – ANY PhD proposal, for that matter – is the literature review. This is where the proposer explains what has been done already, and how what they propose to do fits in with that. It’s a way of showing that they’re not repeating what has already been done (which is pretty pointless) and goes some way towards answering the ‘so what?’ question, which every PhD proposal (and thesis) has to answer. In a nutshell – Why should we care? Why is this important to the wider world, not to just a bunch of wierd academics who like examining these things in minute detail!

In the case of the PhD proposal, the lit review isn’t large – the section that deals with it suggests that it should contain around 200 words, which is – for a humanities student – miniscule. The corresponding section on the eventual PhD thesis would be around 5,000 words or so. Big difference between the two! The amount of reading that I need to do for a lit review directly corresponds to the word count – there’s no point in reading 20,000 books and articles for 200 words. At the same time, it is critically important that I am able to demonstrate an awareness of the key texts, terminology, concepts and debates in my chosen field, and that requires a certain amount of reading. A balance, therefore, is required, and finding that balance, determining it, is the difficult point.

Part of it has to begin with defining the field, thinking carefully about the boundaries of it and exactly what I am going to be studying. This is much easier said than done. I can say that I want to study relationships between the clergy and his parishioners in Herefordshire in the early modern period, which is good, as it defines the boundaries in terms of geographical place and in terms of time (1500-1700 or so, although this will need to be majorly tightened up on). Right now the woolly bit is that term, ‘relationships’. Defining relationships is tricky – and moreover, will be largely determined by how much source material there is available on the subject.

More than that though, at the moment, my mind is engaged in trying to establish patterns between the different secondary texts that I am reading at present. One way of doing this is very well described by The Thesis Whisperer, in ‘five ways to tame the literature review‘. The time aspect of this is really covered by the traditional-revisionist-postrevisionist perspective – I just need to figure out what those different positions would be saying about clergy-parshioner relationships, and more to the point, who is saying them. There’s also different types of issues that can crop up between a clergyman and his parishioners – the economic types (usually over tithes, enclosure, that sort of thing), social (for example, later on, clergy begin to take the role of magistrates and that brings a whole host of issues into play), religious (from the godly disliking priests, through to issues over vestments, communion tables, wives, – the potential issues in this area are never-ending) and moral (money, behaviour, etc.). There’s different ways of seeing the relationships – hierarchical, either top down or bottom up, there’s conflict vs co-operation, there’s management strategies – and that’s before you even get into examining power and the different ways that this can work in a parish, hugely dependent on the type of parish you have, the type of roles that are present, the type of people.  I’ve started to write out a spider diagram but it’ll be a while before it gets finished, but at least things are getting down onto paper.

I’m also trying to think in terms of identifying simple words to attach to each article or chapter from a book. Short, direct words, like you find in some cloud depictions, to try to see patterns. I may be overcomplicating that one for this stage of the lit review but it is still helping me to try to get some of the stuff in my head (and my head is starting to pound) down onto paper, where I can play around with ideas, concepts, and patterns. It may be a while before any sort of coherency begins to appear from the chaos, and at the moment I am very much working with preconceived patterns, that have been described in texts that I have been reading in the last five years. Whether I will be able to pick out my own patterns, remains to be seen.


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