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Literature Review

The literature review is an essential part of a thesis. The student needs to know where to place themselves in the literature, what the literature says about their question, what has already been researched and what conclusions have been drawn.

I’ve always found the literature review a bit of a rabbit hole–in a rather mesmerising fashion. There’s always another article to look up and another book to read and another something, anything, everything available and one step away.

Peter Dunleavy writes in Authoring a PhD: “it is still always a sensible precaution to undertake some form of systematic documentation and bibliographic search at the outset of any PhD, so long as you assign it a strictly limited time frame.” He follows this up with a point that resonated: “a potent reason why we all tend to overextend literature reviews is that doing so postpones this psychologically taxing moment when we have to think through ideas for ourselves.”

This encourages me to think systematically about how to do the literature review but also to limit it in terms of how much time I will invest in it.

An important reason for me to start with the literature review, even though I’m torn with the need to start writing up my survey as soon as possible, is so I have a better sense of which subject best fits with my research.

This is essential as, Dunleavey writes: “How you label schools of thought in your discipline, and how you then describe your own work, will cue readers to where you stand in the subject’s intellectual currents, who you are aligned with and who you are opposed to.”

If your PhD thesis is to be interesting at all then it is inevitable that it will focus to a great extent on some kind of controversy in your discipline, some nexus of debate between different theories, or thematic interpretations, or methodological positions, or empirical standpoints. You will thus have to discuss positions, register criticisms, affirm some loyalties–in short take sides.

No researcher is an island, to paraphrase Donne.

The literature I’ve been drawn to so far, at a very preliminary stage, is from Communication Studies (Kennamer, David (1994); and Scheufele, Shanahan and Kim (2002)) but both of these are quite old–was there even much internet usage in 1994, for example? I need to use them as reference points and see who else has referred to them in their research.

But first, some exploration of how best to do a literature review. This isn’t going to be the only and definitive post on this subject. I intend to explore a few methods and this one felt useful to me for the beginning phase as it provided some direction on what to focus.

The post is from Pat Thomson’s blog on doctoral education (I have occasionally added comments in italics, in parentheses):

getting ready to write about “the literature”

Before the first draft of the literature review:

  • Read a lot (how much is a lot? – ed. check PhDs to see number of references?)
  • Enter relevant aspects into some kind of bibliographic software. (I am using Zotero)
  • Make some notes about key points in each text, probably stored in the same software. (I need to do this!)
  • Mind-map about how the various pieces of literature fit together and how they apply to your project. (Also need to start doing this.)

The above is basically written as an aside; a combination of all the things taken for granted in the literature review. I made sure I noted them, however, because basic or not, it is still useful to point them out. The next three questions are designed to help the author focus their research – the wording is mostly the author’s:

Which studies provide the warrant for your particular project?

In other words, are there any studies which actually say your research is needed? What are they? Why do they say the research is needed?

What studies will your research speak to?

Are there studies like yours but which don’t do exactly what yours will do? In other words, is there a gap in a key set of studies around your topic – say which and what is the gap left and why is this important?

Are there other studies which your research might speak back to? What is the ‘problem’ with these studies that yours might address?

What studies provide the building blocks for your study?

In other words, what literatures are you using as the basis for defining, boundary-ing, and organizing your key ideas?

Why these particular studies and not others?

This ‘personalisation’ equates to the stance that you need in order to write your literature review. Your writing with literatures is all about what is useful to your study and where your work sits in the field. You are not writing a general review of all of the literature.  Your review is always made particular to your study.

I’m still in the ‘read a lot’ stage of the literature review but these three questions seem useful to me. I will keep them at the forefront of my thinking as I focus on what to read next.

Update: 7 September 2019

“A literature review isn’t just about the topic, it’s about someone becoming part of a community of scholars, and it’s a particular way of thinking and communicating. The literature review is a key part of how we keep the scientific game going, so when you do one, you’re not just writing a text – you’re joining in a social activity that’s got purpose.”


Published by Joanna

A collection of fleeting thoughts that tend to focus around Bristol, food, movies, music and photography.

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