Thesis literature review


in Daily updates, M.Phil thesis, Oxford, Politics, Science, Writing

Fallen tree in flooded Port Meadow

The first substantive chapter of my thesis is meant to be a review of the relevant literature. Actually, it would be more correct to say ‘relevant literatures’ since so many different ones touch upon the subject matter. While climate science, ecology, and biochemistry are all relevant to Kyoto and Stockholm, they are not directly relevant to the thesis. The point is to examine the roles played by expertise in policy formulation, not engage directly with the scientific issues at hand. As such, the primary sources of interest are not studies of global warming of POPs, in their own right, but the discussions that took place within the scientific and policy community about what is going on (to be analyzed in Chapter 3: Information and consensus issues) and then about what should be done about it ( Chapter 4: Normative and distributional issues).

Having a look at the conversations that took place within the scientific community about taking a political stake against nuclear testing might be one way of gaining insight into how scientists deliberate about political matters, and how the legitimate role of scientists and the scientific community is seen. Likewise, the whole debate that arose about Bjorn Lomborg’s controversial book. While the public perspective on these debates is largely outside the scope of the thesis, it might be worth touching upon the relationships between public, expert, and political opinion in the chapter on consensus and information issues.

The relevant secondary literatures are various. They obviously include political and international relations theory, especially as they concern questions about prudent decisionmaking, the welfare of future generations, and other normative concerns. (On the normative side, Henry Shue’s work is both highly topical and likely to be considered essential reading by his colleagues here). In general, I am a lot more interested in the core issues of political theory (legitimacy, justice, etc) than in those of international relations theory, though some discussion of the nature of cooperation between states and the formation of international regimes is required. To some extent, international law is relevant, insofar as it helps to define how science relates to the policy process and the practice of states. Elizabeth Fisher’s work on public administration has made me think that the Rationalist-Interventionist and Deliberative-Constitutive frameworks she describes can be applied to international environmental negotiations. It is also fairly clear that some understanding and discussion of the philosophy of science is necessary to prevent the thesis from being overly naive in that regard.

Histories and analyses of the meetings and agreements leading up to the Stockholm Convention and Kyoto Protocol are likewise important secondary sources. Rather than repeat lengthy summaries of what happened in the limited space that I have, I can further summarize it and refer the interested back to more comprehensive accounts. Similarly, other secondary discussions about the nature, causes, and implications of the two agreements should be mentioned.

The last section I mean to include in the literature review is a listing of recent theses, primarily at Oxford, that have addressed similar issues. While it is probably better to engage with more widely known scholars than debate the arguments of these theses directly, there will probably be a bit of the latter in the final version as well. In particular, it might be a good way of making reference to other potentially relevant case studies. Also, since these works have often led me to useful sources, it seems only courteous to give a nod to their authors. Also, they may appreciate knowing that at least one person has dug up the document they spent so much time and energy completing.

If people can think of any other literatures I need to address – or can think of any really stellar sources within the disciplines enumerated above – please leave a comment.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous January 7, 2007 at 10:32 pm

Sociology of science?

Economics also seems like a pretty obvious one.

Ryder McKeown January 8, 2007 at 4:23 am

Hey Milan, Ryan gave me your blog and I check in once and a while to see what youre up to on the other side of the pond. I’m currently doing an MA in poli-sci (IR mostly) at UBC. Stumbled across a book by one of Dr. Price’s old students in my own research you may find helpful if you can find it:

Dimitrov, Radoslav S. Science and International Environmental Policy: Regimes and
Nonregimes in Global Governance. Toronto: Rowman & Littefield Publishers, Inc,

He explores the relationship between scientific knowledge and environmental policy-making (both regimes and non-regimes) and concludes that we must distinguish between the TYPE of knowledge — of a problem’s extent, causes, and transboundary consequences. He notes that while policy makers tolerate a lot of uncertainty regarding the first two, they must be certain about the transboundary consequences before they act. He doesn’t address climate change explicityly but surely much of his findings apply.

Hope this helps, Good luck putting all the pieces together — surely a monumental task!


Milan January 8, 2007 at 12:12 pm


Thanks a lot for the book suggestion.

What does your MA research focus upon?

Rob January 8, 2007 at 9:15 pm

You’re reading other people’s theses? Maybe these things work differently in IR – and social science more generally, perhaps, I guess: a literature review was certainly not a required part of a political theory thesis, or if it was, somehow no-one notice a lack of one in mine – but I’d not heard of people citing theses in one before.

Milan January 8, 2007 at 9:52 pm


Theses have been a great way of getting the most important sources in semi-related fields. I assume that is part of why the department publishes lists of them.

Rob January 8, 2007 at 11:34 pm

The department publishes lists of theses? Well, whaddya know. On the other hand, surely I stand as pretty damn good evidence of not needing to know any of this stuff in order to get your thesis done.

Ryder McKeown January 9, 2007 at 9:36 am

Hi Milan, I havn’t really begun my research I’m afraid — still immersed in the hell that is coursework. I do, however, have a willing and capable advisor in Dr. Price and have decided to study some aspect of the torture question. I orginally was planning to write more of a philosphical piece on: Is torture ever justified? But this question has been debated to death (no pun intended). Oxford’s very own henry shue wrote the flagship piece in the 70s. So I may try and dig up the real world examples (if any are available) of the use of torture and how effective it was, how many lives it saved, (if any) etc…to try and add some empirical weight to my normative claims. I’ve also been musing about the possibility of examining the perverse effects of the torture taboo (eg. it possibly leads to an increase in cruel and unusual punishment which everyone seems to find okay cuz it’s not quite torture). anyhow, have until the summer to put something together.

ciao for now,


Milan January 9, 2007 at 4:28 pm


My friend Sarah is doing a doctorate on prisons at UBC. Torture is only of the subjects that it involves. Perhaps she can suggest some sources to help develop a research question.

I will ask her when she gets back from rock climbing in Scotland.

Milan January 9, 2007 at 4:34 pm


Regarding theses:

Main page
Searchable List of Successful Graduate International Relations Theses from 1971 to 2005

You may need to be on the university network or VPN to access these pages.

Milan January 10, 2007 at 2:07 pm

Norman Myers, who might be presenting to the Strategic Studies Group this term, has written a response to Lomborg’s position on biodiversity.

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