The Syntax of Succinctness in Reviewing Literatures

Definition of “succinct”

In the previous blog, I uploaded the initial research proposal in support of my application to the PhD programme at the University of Manchester. I also wrote about how silly it sounded. Not that I have become more intelligent in the last nine months, but I’m learning to adopt a language style in the academy, which, I guess, is tantamount to one becoming an academic researcher, ready to publish his or her works in the long run.

I am going to show an excerpt from the latest research proposal, one that was crafted under Professor James Thompson’s tutelage. One would also notice the change in direction, a move from refugee situation to contemporary theatre practices within Afghanistan (and it is still evolving at the time of blogging, due in part to the conflicts within Kabul, as well as to the fluid nature of academic research and writing).

Essentially, the question to be asked is: What are the functions and meanings of contemporary theatre in post-Taliban Afghanistan?

Research in theatre and performance has examined the relations between performance and war (see Hughes 2011, Thompson 2009, Kuftinec 2009, Thompson, Hughes & Balfour 2009, Balfour 2001, Obeyesekere 1999), with an identification of key themes on the controversial functions of theatre (peacebuilding, healing, reconciliation, protest, affect, nationalism), its intended and unintended effects (remembering, testimony, trauma), forms of engagement and delivery (local-global, insider-outsider, interventionism-propaganda), as well as the complexities of representation and the ethics in research (use of new technologies). In part, this study is an extension of the investigation on performance in war zones, specifically in Afghanistan – a site that has so far been excluded from in-depth fieldwork due to security reasons.

(For the full 1000-word research proposal, click here: ResearchProposal_EdmundChow_asat15Mar2012)

Contrast this brief Literature Review to the first proposal I submitted earlier:

The common denominator in applied drama is its effect on its participants, regardless of the context in which it is facilitated. Even though Helen Nicholson (2005) chooses not to make such “grand claims” (p.12) on the effects and effectiveness of her own work as a drama practitioner, the power of drama to transform the community is undeniable. From prisons (Thompson 1998; Bergman 2000) to mental hospitals (Forester & Johnson 1995; Haen 2005), from schools (Heathcote 1997/2008) to refugee camps (Breed 2009), and from war‐torn areas (Balfour 2001; Thompson 2005) to urban neighbourhoods (Okumoto 2009; Cohen‐Cruz 2010), transformation – or social change (which I am using interchangeably) – may have a profound trickling effect operating on macro levels where policies are affected, to micro levels where individual behaviours are changed.

The changes may not be obvious above, but if one were to compare the two pdf files, the quality of writing — and my attempts at being succinct — would be apparent. (The older pdf file can be found here.)

Accomplished researchers can review literatures in 2-3 sentences, but I tend to wobble unsteadily into one long paragraph that somehow reads like a narrative or worse, a blog entry! Being succinct is definitely an acquired skill. It is not just the ability to summarise readings into one sentence, but the expertise in clarifying the diversity in opinions, briefly.

Here are a few strategies I’ve noticed from researchers in reviewing literatures.

1. Highlight different usages in terminologies and definitions.

This is an excerpt from Derek Gregory’s The Everywhere War, published in The Geographical Journal, Volume 177, Issue 3, pages 238-250, September 2011. He writes:

Either way, it is not surprising that many commentators should have emphasised the temporality of the military violence that followed in the wake of the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on that bright September morning: the ‘war on terror’ that became ‘the long war’. For the RETORT collective, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq marked ‘the elevation – into a state of permanent war – of a long and consistent pattern of military expansionism in the service of empire’ (RETORT 2005, 80). Keen (2006) wrote of ‘endless war’, Duffield (2007) of ‘unending war’ and Filkins (2008) of ‘the forever war’. The sense of permanence endures, and yet Engelhardt (2010, 2–3) ruefully notes that it remains difficult for Americans to understand ‘that Washington is a war capital, that the United States is a war state, that it garrisons much of the planet, and that the norm for us is to be at war somewhere at any moment’. Bacevich (2010, 225) traces this state of affairs to what he calls the ‘Washington rules’ that long pre-date 9/11.

In a slightly different way, Jenny Hughes’ article Theatre, Performance and the ‘War on Terror’: Ethical and Political Questions arising from British Theatrical Responses to War and Terrorism (published in Contemporary Theatre Review, Vol. 17 (2), 2007, 149-164), shows the trends in definitions. This is a much lengthier discussion, when contrasted with Derek Gregory’s. It is found on page 150:


The language used to discuss terror and terrorism is itself highly performative: ‘terrorism’ is a contested term that has no stable meaning and attempts to distinguish ‘terrorism’ from ‘war’ have been problematised. One point of agreement is that ‘terrorism‘ is a pejorative term that seeks to undermine the authority of the enemy; as Chomsky succinctly puts it, ‘terrorism is the violence that they commit against us — whoever we happen to be’. The phrase ‘war on terror‘ is just as unstable; it refers to a series of acts performed in symbolic and ‘real’ space against an intangible, imagined and undefined enemy. Burke echoes this, showing how the use of the term ‘Al Qaeda‘ to refer to a militant or terrorist group was invented in March 2001 by a US criminal court.

I suspect this is a common strategy, as Sonja Kuftinec’s article illustrates this too:

“Community” has been a problematic term for sociologists since at least the 1950s when, to the consternation of the field, George A. Hillery, Jr. described ninety-four use-definitions of community with very little in common among them (qtd. in Bell and Newby 27). The term serves as a convenient symbol encapsulating a number of contradictory ideas. As Raymond Williams notes in Keywords, references to “community” suggest positive connotations without clear meaning (66). This ambivalence of meaning is, in fact, an important element [End Page 91] of how “community” functions. In The Symbolic Constructions of Community, sociologist Anthony Cohen suggests that “community” operates as a “God word,” used symbolically to avoid the confrontation of its connotative differences (Introduction). “Community,” like “God,” symbolically unites those who believe in and employ the concept, even though these individuals may have vastly varying ideas as to its connotations.

Source: A Cornerstone for Rethinking Community Theatre

2.List sources through parentheses and semicolons.

This example is taken from Performance in Place of War (2009), by James Thompson, Jenny Hughes and Michael Balfour (page 6):

These different manifestations of theatre in a time and place of war are mirrored in literatures relating to theatre and performance in other contexts. There is some notable – although not comprehensive – documentation of theatre in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories (Corthron et al. 2003; Nassar 2006; Slyomovics 1991; Snir 1995, 1996, 1999, 2005; Urian 1995). There are also literatures covering performance in diverse international sites that can be considered war or post-war zones —  Diana Taylor (1990, 2002) on Argentina’s dirty war; Francine A’ness (2004) on the performance group Yuyachkani in Peru; Ranjini Obeyesekere (1999) on theatre in a ‘time of terror’ during the period of civil uprising in Sri Lanka at the end of the 1980s; and Laura Edmondson (2005) on the role of dance in the camps for young people escaping the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda.

This is the style that I am currently using, evidenced by the literature review of my PhD proposal aforementioned.

3. Scan historical contexts across disciplines in the development of a theory.

The next example is from Marvin Carlson’s (1996/2004) Performance: A Critical Introduction. This extract is found on page 11:

The term “performance” as it is encountered, for example, in departments or programs of “performance studies” in the United States today, is heavily indebted to terminology and theoretical strategies developed during the 1960s and 1970s in the socialsciences, and particularly in anthropology and sociology. Especially important in making connections across the boundaries of traditional theatre studies, anthropology, and sociology have been the writings of Richard Schechner, coming from a theatre background, the anthropologists Victor Turner and Dwight Conquergood, and the sociologist Erving Goffman.

Helen Nicholson’s article (2002) The Politics of Trust: Drama Education and the Ethic of Care (from Research in Drama Education: The Journal Of Applied Theatre and Performance, 7:1, 81-91) is also indicative of this definitional trend but placed in a historical context (page 82):
On a theoretical level, trust is a rather slippery concept to deŽfine. Until recently the concept of trust had received little philosophical attention, a situation redressed by the work of theorists such as Annette Baier (1995), Niklas Luhmann (1988), Bernard Williams (1988), Anthony Giddens (1991) and Martin Hollis (1998) whose varied contributions to the Žfield have marked a recognition of the importance of trust to contemporary social life. This resurgence of interest in the idea of trust, and its social implications, has led to renewed descriptions of the concept of trust, and a revision of the Enlightenment assumptions which have surrounded it. Like most abstract concepts, trust has been described in terms which are equally abstract; although variously interpreted, it is generally understood that trust involves a correspondence between belief and expectation, commitment to a person or situation, responsibility for oneself, co-operative behaviour and care for others. These are all key concepts, and implicit values, which have long been embedded in the practice of drama education. In recognising the contemporary need to re-theorise John Locke’s assumption that trust is ‘the bond of society’, Martin Hollis argues that trust continues to be an elusive concept, in that it works ‘in practice but not in theory’ (Hollis, 1998, p. 1; Locke, 1954, p. 213).


4. Identify diverse positionings through the use of verbs.

The next excerpt is interestingly localised and hailed from within, and without, my Singaporean theatre circle. ‘Say As I Do’: Performance Research in Singapore is written by Ray Langenbach and Paul Rae (page 141), which appeared in a volume edited by Jon McKenzie, Heike Roms and C.J. W.-L. Wee, in Contesting Performance: Global Sites of Research (2010):

In this light, it is unsurprising that the work of the most internationally exposed Singaporean theatre-maker — Ong Keng Sen — has elicited the most theoretically nuanced international scholarship. Much focuses on how Ong’s work reproduces (Bharucha, 2000 and 2004), problematizes (Grehan, 2000 and 2001; Wee, 2004) or refreshes (Rae, 2005; Yong, 2004 and 2006) dominant paradigms of intercultural performance theory, to the extent that Ong has become a textbook reference point (Schechner, 2006: 308-10) in debates about theatre-makers as agents of global processes.