There's one theoretical concept I feel I need to explain briefly in the literature review portion of my MA thesis, but it's very slightly tangential and I don't want to spend more than a paragraph on it. A textbook provides the most all-encompassing, thumbnail sketch of this concept, which would allow me to explain it while citing a single source rather than three or four journal articles.

Would it be déclassé to use a textbook as a reference in a MA thesis for this purpose?

  • 6
    I don't know any reason why a textbook shouldn't be cited for something that takes only a paragraph, but maybe this depends on what is conventional in your field. Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 6:18
  • 1
    I second @MichaelHardy on this one; it seems like you need to check in the literature of your field. In my field (economics) it's not exactly common, but I've still seen it done plenty of times, including by very prominent researchers in the field.
    – Jeff
    Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 8:56
  • 1
    At least in mathematics, any reference that explains the concept (well) is fair game. Of course, you still will be judged by your references -- for example, some textbooks have an (unwritten) reputation of being watered-down and "for dummies", and it might be better not to cite them if you are below the level where your own competence in the subject is beyond doubt... Commented Dec 29, 2016 at 16:08

3 Answers 3


You are right that listing a textbook is generally not seen as 'academic' enough. But I think it would make sense to cite it in a literature review with a note like, 'For a good basic overview of this subject, see…'. This I think is acceptable, given that the rest of your thesis shows awareness of more technical pieces as well.


In addition to the other answers, I would say that in a context where a citation of a review article would be sufficient (I would argue this applies when you are talking about "slightly tangential" topics you don't want to overemphasize), a textbook reference is sufficient if you cannot find a relevant scholarly review.

I think it would be especially sufficient if it is a more specialty textbook (i.e., not a first-semester undergraduate textbook) or authored by someone who is particularly expert in the field (vs. an expert in teaching the subject, who may explain the subject well for a novice but not have had a hand in original work in the field).


From my professional and research experience as a research assistant, I will say that this should not be considered déclassé as long as you:

  1. Do not overemphasize too much but just mention the main idea.

  2. From a research perspective, sustaining your main idea on various sources is the standard rule in most papers, however, there exists implicitly (because there is no formal rule that states how many sources you can use to sustain your idea) a certain limit of sources which depends on the weight of the idea that you are introducing. If your point or idea is going to be discussed in a few sentences then the textbook with one more source that serves as introduction will be more than enough.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .