The Literature Review

A careful reader of my proposal will have noted that the document ends with a bibliography but doesn’t really cite anything in the course of the document. My (potential) supervisors and I didn’t seem to think that that was a concern (for we all knew the literature and how I was going to fit into it). The Graduate Committee, however, did think it was a problem. For all my preaching about standardising this and explicating that, the Graduate Committee was unsure as to whether my project was in line with what work had been in the field previously. One notable fact about my work is that I will probably be the first person to write a major project on the philosophical interest of Conspiracy Theories. There exist about thirteen articles that deal with the topic in actual Philosophy (as well as a truckload of others in related disciplines) and I have read them all multiple times. I am, thus, a walking encyclopaedia on the subject (well, really more a Pear’s Cyclopedia). This probably wasn’t (in fact it definitely wasn’t) obvious from the proposal. Indeed, the proposal uses all the right terminology and focuses on the current debate but doesn’t, crucially, mention much by the way of perr-reviewed material. When the Committee asked for me to provide a supplementary literature review onm top of the proposal (before it could be approved) I was, at first, peeved at the extra work and then appreciative. Writing the literature review turned out to be very useful.The document I am about to unleash on you here is the third version of the literature review. It is about four and a half thousand words and covers four different authors reactions to one article, ‘Of Conspiracy Theories’ by Brian L. Keeley. This article appeared in the Journal of Philosophy, which is a, if not the most, extremely prestigious journal in Philosophy (and, if I were to be in my usual arrogrance mode, the most prestigious journal in Academe). If an article appears there then it is considered good, noteworthy and probably groundbreaking.I challenge the article on several accounts, of course. I had to really; PhDs are meant to be original research and not the rehashing of someone else’s work. Well, ideally that is what a PhD project should be. I’m sure a lot of Departments at a lot of Universities hold a lesser standard, but not mine.The first version of the literature review was about ten thousand words in length. It took two weeks to write and will, eventually, become chapter one (or two) of the actual thesis. I never intended this version of the literature review to go to the committee. For one thing it is partially prose and partially notes; in it I mapped out the existing literature in exhaustive detail, spending a little more time on some subjects than others, depending on my wants. The more complete parts of the document I turned into a five thousand word review that focused on Keeley’s notion that the Conspiracy Theory is unfalsifiable and that belief in Conspiracy Theories leads to a form of wholesale skepticism (along with my usual gestures towards “Just So” Stories). It was this version that I then handed over to one of my supervisors to see what he thought.It was, he claimed, very confusing.Editing down documents can sometimes be a good idea and sometimes can be a very bad one. In my case I had all the details but provided little by way of a map to let the reader know where they were in the morass. I thus completely rewrote the piece, keeping the original structure but replacing every word. The new version, four and a bit thousand words in length, which you can read below, is a far better document. It flows, for one thing, although it does omit reference to one scholar who deserves more credit than he gets in my review (David Coady). Luckily, the literature review really impressed the Graduate Committee, although at the time I thought they were going to reject the whole project out of hand. More on that matter next time.The Literature Review


About Matthew Dentith

Author of "The Philosophy of Conspiracy Theories" (Palgrave Macmillan), Matthew Dentith wrote his PhD on epistemic issues surrounding belief in conspiracy theories. He is a frequent media commentator on the weird and the wonderful, both locally and internationally. On occasion he can be caught dreaming about wax lions but, mostly, it is rumoured he works for elements of the New World Order.