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How to write a literature review

Yesterday, I was talking to a dissertation supervisee about what’s expected in the obligatory literature review. I had a similar conversation last week. I realised a little while ago that you can’t get a literature review right if you don’t know why you’re being required to do it – and that the point of doing a literature review is slightly obscure. This morning when I walked into my office and saw my notes still on the whiteboard, it occurred to me that it might be helpful to set down my thoughts on the matter somewhere slightly more permanent. Hence this blog post.

It’s basically just three lists of questions that you should probably think about answering for every single item of literature (article, book, chapter, etc) that you review. They’re the same regardless of whether you’re an undergraduate, master’s, or PhD student, and they should apply to pretty much any discipline that I’m aware of. Which list you use for each item of literature depends on why you’re reviewing the item in question, but thinking about which list is most appropriate should help you to figure that out if you’re not sure. By the time you come to actually submit your work, you’ll probably want to cut down what you wrote depending on how interesting the answers to the questions actually turned out to be. However, it will help you enormously if you’ve got them all written out in full in a draft somewhere.

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Parliamentary elections in Whitehaven/Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Cental

Labour’s performance in recent by-elections has been — shall we say — a little weak. As Glen O’Hara (2017) observes, ‘[g]overnments have increased their by-election vote share only seven times since 1970’, but two of those occasions were last month, which was ‘the first time the Government has seen its vote rise in two simultaneous by-elections since 1954’. Who is to blame? Some point the finger at Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair for selling out the interests of the working classes — as supposedly represented by the party’s ‘hard left’ wing, until recently led by the late Tony Benn — and chasing the middle class vote instead. But this version of events rests on a misunderstanding of the Labour vote: Theo Bertram’s (2017) analysis shows that the Labour Party has only won General Elections when the proportion of skilled workers voting Labour rose and the proportion of skilled workers voting Conservative fell (yes, this happened under Blair; the opposite happened under Corbyn).

Bertram’s much smarter than me, but his argument is based on opinion polls, which not everybody appears to respect. For that reason, I thought I’d create some charts showing shares of the actual vote in strongly working class constituencies. Hmm, how about Copeland (formerly, Whitehaven) and Stoke-on-Trent Central?

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Informative, not infallible: why polling mostly works pretty well (even though only about a thousand people usually get sampled)

Over the last few months, I’ve often heard that polls can’t be trusted. In particular, I have heard that they can’t be trusted because each one usually involves study of only about a thousand individuals. I have even heard that argument from a retired quantitative linguist.1 So I’ve put together this essay in order to explain how polls work, why a random sample of a thousand should usually be considered sufficient, and why the results should be treated as informative even though they do not enable us to predict precise numbers of votes (which is a particular problem when the results are going to be close — because then, precise numbers can make all the difference).

Continue reading “Informative, not infallible: why polling mostly works pretty well (even though only about a thousand people usually get sampled)”

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The cultural quasi-economy of esteem transactions is underpinned and permeated by the real economy of financial transactions

This is the approximate text of a short talk I was invited to give at the Cultural Value Scoping Workshop organised by Patrycja Kaczyńska at Edinburgh College of Art on 18 January 2017

I’ve been asked to talk about what we’ve learnt about the ‘transactions’ underpinning ‘cultural ecosystems’ as part of this discusion on whether scholarship on cultural value has been advancing. I’m really glad about that – especially about the word ‘transaction’, because one of the principal things that I think we’ve learnt is that, while the metaphor of ‘ecology’ can be useful, the reality of cultural production in our society is fundamentally economic.

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I hear him coughing

I’ve probably spent more time listening to Leonard Cohen than to Bowie and Prince put together, but somehow his death has hit me less hard. I don’t know why. I guess because much bigger things have happened to shake me. This has been a pretty horrible year, all told. Or a pretty good one if you hate the things I love. There was the Brexit vote, which told me that my family weren’t as welcome here as I had once thought. There was the United States presidential election – about which, no words are enough. In the US, the UK, and in France, we have seen the rise of pro-Kremlin nationalists employing a racist and isolationist rhetoric the likes of which I once thought belonged only to the political fringe. This isn’t the world that many were expecting, back in the 1990s when I came of age and I fell under the spell of that eloquence and a voice drenched in resignation and regret.

But it turns out that this is what the future was, and he was right. It really is murder.

The days pass, and I hear him coughing.

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Of Brexit, Trump, and demographics: a reaction against modernity and an urgent need for a new politics

There’s much to be said about the UK’s decision to leave the European Union and the US’s decision to elect Donald Trump as president: above all, that we have in neither case seen a simple victory of ‘right’ over ‘left’. Leading conservatives in both countries had opposed the result that ultimately came to pass, and in both countries, the result was followed by a stock market fall, indicating that investors expected the supposedly ‘right wing’ option to be bad for business.

But for now I’d like to observe some important transatlantic similarities in the demographics of the winning and losing sides.

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The meta-tutorial and the proto-tutorial

I’ve decided to introduce two new genres of writing to this blog: the ‘meta-tutorial’ and the ‘proto-tutorial’.

The web is full of really helpful little tutorials on how to do various things. I’ve learnt a lot from them. I basically learnt Python programming from the Stack Overflow question-and-answer site, the official Python language docs, and a bunch of tutorials by random programmers. Less the latter than the former two, but still. There have been those times when what I’ve needed as a reader was not the nuts and bolts of ‘how do I do X?’ but an understanding of how somebody who does X thinks about X, and in those cases, the tutorials have been really valuable. It doesn’t have to be programming; that’s just an example.

I don’t think that the value of a tutorial depends on whether anybody actually follows the tutorial. At times, I’ve learnt something from a tutorial without following it. Guiding a hypothetical newbie through the nuts and bolts of a thing seems to provide a good structure for publicly thinking the thing through, whether or not that’s how the writer in question intended it. Well, that’s how it seems to me anyway.

So I’m going to start posting meta-tutorials here on this blog. They’ll be like tutorials in that I’ll be explaining how to do things, but the emphasis will be on reasoning about the doing of the things that I’m explaining. I’m not sure whose benefit I’ll be writing them for. I’d like to say that it’s for yours – but I don’t know whether anybody’s really going to read them and I’m not sure that it matters anyway. The discipline of explaining how to do something in enough detail that somebody else could potentially follow the steps has value of its own as a spur to thought, and – even in the absence of a pupil – there may be as much to be learnt from teaching as there is from being taught. And if anybody does follow the steps and finds the following of them helpful, then so much the better. A meta-tutorial can ideally also be used as a tutorial, although its purpose is still fulfilled even if that never takes place. Perhaps that’s the case for all tutorials, but with a meta-tutorial, it’s explicit.

Then there’s the proto-tutorial. A proto-tutorial is the thing you wish you’d read before you started doing the thing that got you into the mess that you had to read tutorials to get out of. From my point of view, it’s less a way of thinking through the nature of X by explaining how to do it than a way of looking back over everything I had to do for the sake of X and asking myself whether X was really worth it in the first place. A proto-tutorial could simultaneously help me the writer to persuade myself that something was worth it and help you the reader (if you’re really there) to feel vindicated in your decision not to bother with it. But its real purpose is simply the reckoning that its construction requires.

I’m going to retrospectively tag my recent essays on blogging and LaTeX as a proto-tutorials, because that’s what I consider them essentially to be.

I haven’t written any meta-tutorials yet.

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The LaTeX fetish (Or: Don’t write in LaTeX! It’s just for typesetting)

It’s that time of year when students are signing up for study skills classes. One of the skills that science students are likely to be encouraged to develop is the use of LaTeX. Other people may come to LaTeX for other reasons: people who want to typeset their own books; people who’ve heard that LaTeX may have something to do with Digital Humanities; etc. I’ve written this essay as a sort of pre-introduction to LaTeX. It won’t teach you how to use it (I’m not qualified!), but it will try to give non-users a clear understanding of what LaTeX is really for, which may help them to make their minds up about whether the effort of learning it (not to mention simply getting it to work) is really going to be worthwhile. Why such a long essay? Because many of those who evangelise for the use of LaTeX fetishise it to the extent of spreading misinformation about its true benefits and I want to clear some of that up. Continue reading “The LaTeX fetish (Or: Don’t write in LaTeX! It’s just for typesetting)”

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‘You can’t stop me’: Militant, Momentum, and the new entryism

Last month, I came out to my friends as a non-supporter of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Since that time, I’ve been public about it in my own small way. It took me a while to admit that my party was led by someone who did not have its voters’ interests at heart, but the key moment came when I was delivering leaflets for the Labour Party’s In for Britain campaign and I ended up talking to a man who had voted both for the Labour Party under Tony Blair and for the Conservative Party under David Cameron. A man – in case this isn’t obvious – from outside my middle class bubble in which people will express solidarity with Jeremy Corbyn even while being unsure that they really agree with him, and in which there are probably more anarchists than conservatives. I picked up that he wanted a Labour Party that he could vote for again. For Jeremy Corbyn, he had two devastating words: ‘Student politics.’ Those words stuck with me.

It wasn’t just that he was a swing voter in a marginal constituency, and therefore exactly the kind of person that Labour needs to be reaching out to if it ever wants to be in government again (if it ever wants to be in government again… a point that I’ll return to).

It was that he was right – and I knew it.

Continue reading “‘You can’t stop me’: Militant, Momentum, and the new entryism”

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