The ILE 12-02 class is well underway. Many of the officers within the course are pursuing an MMAS, or Master of Military Art and Science, degree. I’ve had the privilege of serving as a chair and committee member for several officers’ theses. I also have the privilege of chairing eight students’ theses in the ILE 12-01 Scholars Program focusing on the “Local Dynamics of War.” Tomorrow, I’ll meet those officers who are interested in applying for a spot on the 12-02 LDW program for the first time, and I’d like to share some basic guidance and–perhaps–start a discussion about what constitutes a scholarly thesis. The guidance is my own. It is deceptively simple but straightforward. It is certainly contestable, but it may be helpful to some…or many.
Guidance to MMAS scholars: Stamp this on your forehead. It is very basic, but nearly all fundamental problems in thesis-writing can be boiled down to a failure to adhere to the following. Your thesis should stand on the shoulders of those who have studied your topic before you. You will, in some way, respond to these forerunners. The work of these forerunners–in the aggregate–constitutes “the state of the science” or “the state of the discipline.” Scholars also refer to to this work as “the literature.” Hence, you need to argue against, modify, or create something new vis-a-vis “the literature.” Moreover, whatever you produce must be a small but significant contribution to “the state of the science.”
Given the practical work that military professionals must do, I like to introduce my students to Ian Shapiro’s take on problem-based research. He argues that scholars should proceed in their research from a concrete problem in the real world. This sounds relatively uncontroversial, but he’s actually fighting a battle against another group of scholars who proceed in their research by seeking not to solve a real problem, but seeking instead to advance a specific discipline, theory, or method. Since very few ILE students seek to advance a specific scholarly discipline, theory, or method, we are free to focus on concrete problems related to security, or strategy, or planning, or operations, or leadership, or logistics, or understanding where we’ve come from as a military profession. It follows that Shapiro’s advice is a good fit for us. He and his co-author, Donald Green, advocate “starting with a problem in the world, next coming to grips with previous attempts that have been made to study it, and then defining the research task by reference to the value added” (“Problems, Methods, and Theories in the Study of Politics: Or, What’s Wrong with Political Science and What to Do about It,” Political Theory, Vol. 30, No. 4, August 2002). It’s in JSTOR.
Your introduction (Chapter One) should include, among other things described in the MMAS handbook, your topic, the significance of your work, your research question (I’ll say more about the question momentarily), and your thesis statement (i.e., your principal finding). Many students will, in earlier drafts, fail to include a thesis statement. Include it. A thesis isn’t a mystery novel.
Your literature review (Chapter Two) should lay out for the reader the various streams of literature that constitute the state of the science as it pertains to your question. As I said before, your work will constitute a response to this literature. Put otherwise, your research question comes from your literature review. Your literature review should attempt to find a shortcoming or gap in the existing literature. You might argue that you can answer a specific question better than one or all of the forerunners. Or you might state that the literature has failed to address a particular angle of a topic altogether. Or you might state that you can justify the same conclusion as a previous scholar albeit with a different method of justification. In all cases, select a nice, tight research question that you can answer in the course of your heavy ILE load over the next several months. Small and narrow are good. You are trying to produce a thesis, not an earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting research program.
Your methodology section (Chapter Three) will describe the manner by which you will assemble data and analysis to justify your principal argument; i.e., your thesis statement. If you have statistical and econometric expertise, the world of [e.g.] quantitative social science is open to you. Otherwise, you are limited to relatively simple tabular analysis if your question demands quantitative work. Most likely you’ll have to develop some facility in the various qualitative methodologies practiced by historians, some social-scientists, and other scholars. The best way to do this is by reading good examples of the type of paper you wish to write. In any case, this chapter describes how you will do the work in Chapter Four. Try to discern what type of paper you are writing. Depending on your topic, find a chair who is conversant in the sorts of arguments you will need to make. Scholarly work can come in many forms. The College’s faculty have much expertise in historical methods. There are other approaches. Use as your example the articles you find in JSTOR. Some work is historical. Some of it is theoretical. Some of it is empirical. Select the method that it takes to answer your question. Rigorous attention to this short but important chapter will ensure that your paper is more of a scholarly thesis and less of a weakly substantiated opinion piece.
Your analysis section (Chapter Four) is where you make your money. Having derived a research question from the literature review, you will now attempt to answer the question in such a way that your conclusion is plausible to a broad audience. It is a good and humbling exercise to imagine that the authors in your literature review will be at your oral thesis defense. Are the arguments that you adduce in this chapter sufficiently plausible and respectable (not necessarily dispositively convincing) that you wouldn’t incur embarrassment after such a hypothetical meeting?
Your conclusion (Chapter Five). Simple. Sum up Chapters 1-4 and restate the significance and implications of your study.
Hope this helps.
Celestino Perez, Jr., Ph.D.
Lieutenant Colonel, Strategist
Seminar Leader: ILE Scholars Program/”The Local Dynamics of War”