When life gets in the way

“Distracted from distraction by distraction”
― T.S. Eliot

strong coffee (series U)

I first wrote about researching my own PhD on July 27, 2019, nearly a year ago. What did I want to have achieved by the end of that first year? Had I given it any thought? I should go back and check really.

10 months on, though, I’m still here and feeling better about the research than I have had in a while. To clarify, I’d never felt badly about it but it had certainly felt like I wasn’t progressing much.

In the last two months, I’ve had two or three realisations and breakthroughs. After my last meeting with Helen in March, I knew that I wanted to write up my case studies properly so I decided to do some research. I bought Yin’s Case Study Research and its Applications (6th edition) and there made my first mistake. I decided to read all of it.

This doesn’t seem a particularly good use of my time in retrospect but I figured I would start from the beginning and carry on ‘reading all of it’ until I’d found the points that were relevant to me.

I don’t recommend this approach.

Work pressures meant that I had less and less time to read in that general-and-quite-broad way so, in time, I read less and less. Then the coronavirus lockdown hit and I had even less time.

Two weeks before my next scheduled meeting, I’d got no further in knowing exactly which theoretical parts I needed to quote and use. So I started writing up just to get the facts of the cases down on paper. As I wrote, I got a better understanding of what I had been doing and I was better able to see the gaps in my method.

The methodology has been as follows:

  • Write some stories (this is quite simplistic sounding but not in practice)
  • Note where they have been distributed and how they have been promoted,
  • Note the social media and readership statistics,
  • Survey Bristol residents and others to assess readership and reach,
  • Assess other demographic variables;
  • Construct a statistical model on the social media effect of local news while controlling for other variables.

I created a matrix of which stories I had written and could, therefore, track each one in terms of exposure and distribution to media and, therefore, people. The story writing is quite a time consuming process. Researching the stories about the mayor of Bristol and the Bethel School of Supernatural Ministry took months, and is ongoing.

The matrix helped me see that I hadn’t used Facebook much in my social media promotion. In fact, in Bristol, there has been a bias towards Twitter for various reasons. The mayor himself, when referring to social media, refers almost exclusively to Twitter when it comes to criticism of him. He has called it ‘that Twitter nonsense’ and refuses to engage with those who he calls ‘trolls’. Part of that ‘Twitter nonsense’ effect is the outcome of the Bethel story I wrote last July. However, that story is not the reason why the mayor paid £90,000 of public money to scrape Twitter data and get monthly updates on what people were saying about him on social media. This story is also one I broke — it was about Impact Social.

There are two important elements to the case studies.

1. They make up the methodology of what I have been doing to answer my research question;

2. They provide the validity for my data collection rationale.

Survey and data analysis

The next part of the research, alongside the case study write-up, is to complete the survey, disseminate it, and then collect and analyse the data. The results from my data analysis should give me the information I need to answer my research question: what is the effect of social media on political participation in relation to, and compared with, local and national media.

I am still a bit wary of how I’m going to operationalise ‘political participation’. Can it be measured quantitatively? or will it need qualitative assessment?

It may be that it can be measured by assessing various means of political participation and seeing if these change over time. I will keep this in mind.

Literature Review

I also need to do the literature review. I had a real breakthrough while writing up the case studies. As I wrote, I went back to check my original wording for my research question. I returned to the output from the LitRev course and found my research outline and the research topic.

What I had been abbreviating as the social media effect on local news, had actually been originally conceived as “What is the effect of social media on [local?] political participation and knowledge, in relation to local and national media?”

I realised that it is better formed as follows: “What is the effect of social media on local political participation and knowledge, compared to local and national mainstream media?”

In practice, this translates to, “what would the effect be of relaying information about local politics if the media were either social media, local mainstream, or national media?”

Can we measure it?

The research method needed to translate this question into reality is for me a statistical model.


  1. Get a new book on case studies;
  2. Finish writing up the case studies;
  3. Finish the survey by adding in the further stories I identified;
  4. Publish the survey;
  5. Collect data;
  6. Analyse data.

The last three points are additional to the immediate actions needed but they flowed out as I was writing. I’m so excited about feeling that things are going right and that I’m on track and –importantly– I know what to do next.

Previously, I would feel that the LR was such a huge thing that it would overwhelm me. Once I’d written up most of my case studies though I felt that I knew which questions I needed to answer and how to look for those answers. I turned to a couple of articles on citizen journalism and was able to assess whether they answered any of the same questions I had and how I could use them. I didn’t feel overwhelmed.

I noted the references I needed in order to better understand the literature on ‘citizen journalism’ and I also found some useful research results from the articles, which help me validate my data selection reasoning.

Time management

It took two months to get to this point and it has taken nearly a year now to get to this stage of research. How does this all stack up?

Well, I’m not sure really. I have noticed my time usage cluster at the far points of my timescales that have been arranged to fit around my meetings with Helen. These are the only external meetings I have about the project. I get excited and re-enthused after talking to her, and I spend the new few days doing things. Then life takes over and I have to reprioritise so I can get paid work done; and then as time approaches for our next meeting, I do more work so I can have something to report on.

I would much rather have work done in shorter increments than two-monthly ones. I’m still working on this idea, however. The question becomes what slows me down? The answer is that being held accountable makes me work, and that’s what helps me progress my research. Life and paid work slow me down, and they can’t really be delayed.

So how do I increase my accountability?

I wondered whether having meetings more often would help but that wasn’t really practical. One other suggestion was to build up a network of similarly minded researchers. Getting a peer group and being able to exchange chapters and advice would be a help.


Find a peer group; find other researchers.


I’ve been both lucky and unlucky with the lockdown because while paid work has been scarce, it has given me time to research. That time has helped me realise I know what I’m doing and what I have to do next. I am very grateful to have found someone to talk to and while she just pointed me to certain things I needed to do next, having that assurance and the prompt for accountability has been a huge help.

I hope you’re all keeping well too. Until next time.

Accountability and surveys

[[What I should have posted in January 2020: As with any freelance work, it is the way we are accountable that helps us achieve things.

The way I keep myself accountable is by supporting Helen Kara through Patreon.

I had a meeting with her today and as I talked to her I realised what my next step in my research had to be. I had to do the data collection; the survey.

So that’s my next step. ]]

16 March 2020

And here’s an update on my accountability. Because I knew that I was meeting with Helen this morning, I set up a survey right at the last minute. I had been thinking about it for weeks, and had known what I was going to include for months. The first paper I read about the link between regional media and demographics had survey questions I wanted to include, and that was almost a year ago now.

That thinking and cogitating hadn’t translated to me setting up a survey. Meeting with Helen and having to explain my actions made me set it up. And I wasn’t doing it for her. I was doing it for me. I just needed that accountability to force me to act on something I wanted to do.

As I updated her on my project, I was learning about what I had been doing. It actually felt like learning. I realised that I had already written up two articles that were part of my PhD.

My topic is the media effect of social media on local news.

I have written two stories about events of public interest happening in Bristol but not being covered by the local media at all. I consider the local mainstream media to be Bristol24/7, BBC Points West/Radio Bristol, The Bristol Cable, and The Bristol Post. The reason why the stories aren’t being covered in the local media is another topic I want to examine as part of my literature review. They have been covered in other types of media: The Bristolian, and BCfm.

One article was written in July 2019 and the other in March 2020. There has been no coverage of either in the mainstream press.

The next stage is to survey people to see how much, or if, they have heard about the stories while noting that these stories are only available on social media and alternative press. The results from the surveys will provide the data for my research.

These case studies can now also provide text for the thesis.

I had been wondering how to write them up in the thesis and Helen mentioned writing them up as case studies. This is not just a simple matter of adding them in somewhere. There are certain ways of writing up case studies, and I have given myself two weeks to research case study methodology.

I will then write up my first one within two weeks after the research, and the second one three weeks after the first one. This gives me one week before my next meeting about the PhD.

I’ve been able to hold myself accountable, note down my progress, motivate myself –and get excited again–about what I’m doing, and set some deadlines for the next part of the work.

  • Survey ready and starting to pilot [23/03]
  • Case study methodology research [30/03]
  • Writing up case studies — #1 due [14/04]; #2 due [10/05]
  • Write up methodology update for Methodology chapter [19/05];

Update: mid-September

I spent a lot of time finishing the editing of a manuscript this week so I had less time to blog and research. I did achieve something significant, however, and that has opened up the level of access I have to information.

To take a quick step back, my inspiration for a while now has been Dr. Helen Kara who is a social researcher and blogs about her processes and career. This allowed me to ‘see’ in a way the kind of future that inspired me.

She wrote a while ago about how she joined the Social Researchers Association and how that provided her with access to EBSCO, which is a database of journals.

Throughout the literature review course I was doing, and which gave me a lot of inspiration and motivation as well, there was much mention of databases at universities where people could use keywords to search for articles and literature on their subject. As an independent researcher not affiliated with a university, I had no access to this. At the back of my mind was the idea of heading to a local university, UWE, and registering with them because they have a link with our public city libraries.

UWE is a bus ride away as it’s out of town. We do have a university right in the city centre and they are even currently building a £70 million+ library. They are not so sharing and caring with their resources, however. You can access their material by showing up and requesting a day pass. You will have to have ordered it online previously, wait for notification, hand over some ID and then only read it or photocopy it on the premises. You can’t use their computers.

I have accessed a couple of PhD thesis in this manner. But I need more right now.

So here comes the EBSCO reference from Helen. I checked how much the price for membership was with the SRA and joined up. It’s £60 a year for self-employed researchers. It felt a bit of an investment but £5 a month for access to knowledge is not too bad at all.

The second fluke of stumbling across information was on Twitter this early morning (2 am) and coming across Routledge’s ‘Trending’ series which is open access to December 31. It’s about social media and political activism, and that sounds like exactly what I need. It’s in sociology rather than communications or politics but still it’s an opportunity to discover my ‘colleagues’ out there.

The network of people and writing that I will be joining. My community, as such. Possibly a neighbouring commune of my community, now that I’ve taken a look at the themes being addressed. It’s still helpful though.

Literature Review — Outline

  1. Trolls, echo chambers, misogynism, abuse of politicians and d*ick pics are some of the worst elements of social media. But is that all there is to this platform?
  2. How are social media platforms used? What evidence exists of the number of users and different types of use?
  3. Who own the media?
  4. What types of political participation are out there?
    1. Ingleheart
  5. What are the various media effects on political participation?
  6. How do we measure media effects?
  7. How do we evaluate political participation?
  8. Amongst all that, what is the specific effect of social media on political participation, and more particularly on local politics?

To be continued but this is my initial outline.



Key points

  1. Perception of social media as abusive and chaotic. Things go ‘viral’ and then are forgotten about.
  2. People are increasingly using social media to be activists and discuss local politics;
  3. Local news has had so many cuts that there are few sources left these days.
  4. There are local magazines and newspapers and regional TV so how do these news and information sources affect knowledge and political participation for local residents?

Media effects

Questions addressed in this section: what are the different types of media? what are the media effects of different types of media? what characteristics of people determine certain media effects? how can we measure them?

Info sources:  Ohme (2018); Bulhoun (2015); Dahlgren (2013); Brader (2006)

Key points:

  1. How media affects people;
  2. Politically informed citizens are more easily manipulated by emotional appeals than less involved citizens;
  3. The number of users on social media is growing. Corbyn’s success in terms of numbers is often associated with the rise of Momentum and their mobilisation of the ‘youth’ vote. How is that linked to social media usage?

Local political participation

This sections looks at the following: who are the people likely to participate in local politics and activism? what types of political participation exist?

Info sources: Scheufele (2002); Dahlgren (2013); Inglehart and Norris (2016); Olson (1965; 1971; 2000)

Key points

  1. factors that are related to citizens’ involvement in their local communities, awareness of relevant issues, and attitude strength on issues;
  2. “political engagement” is needed in a democracy.
  3. Links to one’s neighbourhood and social ties are a predictor of engagement in local politics.
  4. In his 1965 book, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, Mancur Olson identified the difficulties groups have in organizing to further their collective interest. Does social media make it easier for groups to organise and therefore solves the collective action problem?
  5. community members have an individual interest in abstaining from collective action and free riding on others’ contributions, but no benefit is produced if nobody participates. For example, marches, rallies or other awareness-raising activities to change entrenched social norms affect the social environment shared by community members whether they participate or not. This creates a temptation to let other community members invest time and effort. 

Social media

Questions addressed in this section: the power of social media; how is it used; definitions of the types out there and how many people use it; how often do stories get picked up by the press from social media? what is its role in informing local residents about local issues?

Info sources: Alterman (2011); Dahlgren (2013) Olson (1971)

Key points

  1. The internet has changed the prior one-way media information flow into one of greater two way political engagement. (Dahlgren)
  2. Does social media solve the collective action problem for ease of communication and coordination? [[is this relevant??]]
  3. What do people do on the internet in relation to local political activism?
  4. What effect does this social media usage/action have on participation? on mobilisation?


Key points

  1. Social media is a form of information transfer similar to news and media but it includes much interaction;
  2. Interaction provides its own reward, to an extent. More followers, more kudos, etc. This could be an incentive to solve the collective action problem. People may invest the time in producing reports and news articles and organising political activism because of the immediate benefit.
  3. The reach of social media users, however, is not as great as that of newspapers and other local media. So this work examines what is the reach and how many do get informed by social media?
  4. Certain stories get covered on social media that would not be picked up at all in the mainstream media. How effective is social media at promoting these stories and informing readers and users?
  5. How effective are companies like Cambridge Analytica at affecting what people think, as compared to say individuals who would not get any space to share their stories without social media?

Concept Map

I’ve been working on a concept map of my research (with much thanks to the FutureLearn course for how to do a literature review). This helps to first identify the structure of the research and then find matching articles and information that fits alongside those concepts.

It’s a great way to work on what research is available without that overwhelming fear of just how much is out there. You look at your concept map, see if a particular article can provide you with an answer to one of the concepts, and then keep it or ditch it.

I’m still working on it. I’m finding it a bit tricky to connect the different media types with the type of media effect, and magnitude of it. I used bubble.us to make it.

Any tips on how to link bits and pieces would be welcomed.

My topic and question is What is the effect of social media on [local?] political participation and knowledge, in relation to local and national media?

Update: social media is known for its unpleasantness, its ‘echo chamber’ and for its ability to make certain items of information go ‘viral’. This made me wonder about the idea of ‘trolling’. The Bristol mayor is well known for being very thin skinned and for calling anyone who questions him on social media ‘trolls’.

That brought up the idea of acceptable and unacceptable political participation.

Crowdsourcing questions

I’m now at the stage where I want to find as many questions about my research as possible. I then plan on using the literature to answer the questions.

I have the following so far:

What effect on political participation and political knowledge, do social media users/forms have in comparison to regional and national media?

What are media effects?

What is defined as social media?

What effect does regional media have?

What effect does national media have on political participation?

What types of political participation are there?

Who has the right to question politicians? Who can be questioned?

  1. Definitions
    1. Social media
      1. Social media users

Please feel free to add your own questions and let me know what you think would be some useful ones.

Drills: Note taking — II

A simple and effective technique for paraphrasing is to read a paper, or even just the abstract, then look away from the text and write down what you remember:

  • what is the study about?
  • what problem does it address?
  • how did they conduct the research?
  • what were the main findings?
  • why is it important?

The next thing to do is add some evaluation;

So as I’m reading a paper, I take summary notes first, then I have a go at paraphrasing it and adding some comments, to emphasise what I find most important.. or I’ll ask questions, and spell out why I think it is or isn’t useful to the discussion and research I’m planning… https://litreviewsite.wordpress.com/2017/12/06/2-10/

three distinct functions of the annotation. First there is a summary of the publication, then a more personal response and evaluation (what I think about it), and finally an explanation of why the source is or isn’t useful to the review I want to write (what I think I might be able to do with this information).

So as a rule, aim to make notes about other researchers’ work in these three ways:

  • synopsis of the facts (what authors have done, found and said)
  • comments on aspects of their research design or findings that you find interesting, new, important, problematic, limited etc
  • comment about how the publication relates to your research project (what seems most useful for your own quest to answer a particular question or articulate a particular problem)

Drills: taking notes and reading — I

“Why did you walk around with crab apples in your cheeks? Yossarian asked again. “That’s what I asked.” 
“Because they’ve got a better shape than horse chestnuts,” Orr answered. “I just told you that.” 
“Why,” swore Yossarian at him approvingly, “you evil-eyed, mechanically-aptituded, disaffiliated son of a bitch, did you walk around with anything in your cheeks?” 
“I didn’t,” Orr said, “walk around with anything in my cheeks. I walked around with crab apples in my cheeks. When I couldn’t get crab apples, I walked around with horse chestnuts. In my cheeks.”
Catch 22

Asking the right questions and looking for the answers in the right places, is a vital way to start any research project.

How does one do that though?

How does one perfect their note-taking to such an extent that asking the right questions and getting the answers you want, happens as a consequence?

I hadn’t really considered that you could learn a skill such as taking notes from articles.

Taking notes is one of the areas that fills me (used to fill me) with trepidation because it seems to take so much time. You have to read the article (5000 to 6000 words), understand it, take notes, see what you think of the notes, and then try to remember it all as you move on to your next article and then the next 100 or 1000 or more.

Sometimes I worry that I’ll only get around to about one article a week but that’s not many when the main advice is to read ‘a lot’. At uni, I would print out the articles and read and underline the parts that seemed significant. I would then write down notes from the highlights and keep my pages. At the top of each page in my notebook I would write the author and the page number.

With electronic files, one tip I was told by a fellow student, who’d completed a diploma in information studies, was to label my article file names as follows: Author surname first name (year) title. You could then easily find it and sort your articles in prep for a lit review as well.

Here are some more tips.

  1. Helen Kara (professional researcher and author of many books on how to research) & Galvan, J and M;

Preselect your articles: read the abstract, introduction and conclusion. You’ll then know whether this article will be useful to you. If not, move on.

2. Vanessa Corcoran (PhD graduate and adviser):

  • Read a lot and take notes on the following:
  • What was the author’s main argument?
  • Kinds of sources?
  • How does this book fit in with the current scholarship?
  • What areas did you take issue with?

3. Scott Young (author and researcher on ultralearning)

Save the articles or papers in a folder. After each article, leave a few blank pages to take notes and recall information afterwards when revising. Recall is a way of learning as well.

4. Time, place, and author — Doing Your Literature Review: Traditional and Systematic Techniques By Jill Jesson, Lydia Matheson, Fiona M Lacey

  • When were the studies conducted?
  • What is the earliest study in relation to the theory in that field?
  • Where were the studies conducted?
  • Who is the author? How many times have they been cited?
  • Who are the key authors in the subject?

“One aspect of time to take into consideration is the original date of publication of the work of a key author. Knowledge is incremental. What we know now has been built up over centuries in some academic fields.”

“When writing, it is customary to mention the study which was published first, to give credit to the author who made the initial argument, theory or finding.”

“You should, of course, try to take a look at the original works if they are available and make your own interpretation.”

5. How to take notes in college (link)

The structured method — The Outline

Choose four or five key points that will be covered in your lecture. Beneath those points write some more in-depth sub-points about each topic as they are covered.

For Review: The Cornell Method

Divide your paper into three sections: notes, cues, and summary.

Your notes section is for the notes you take during class. You can structure them however you like, but most people like to use the outline method.

Write your cues section either during or directly after class. This section can be filled out with main points, people, or potential test questions. Use this section to give yourself cues to help you remember larger ideas.

You can write your summary section directly after class, or later when you’re reviewing your notes. Use this section to summarize the entire lecture.

In Depth: The Mind Map

Start with a concept in the middle and then add notes to depict key ideas. For revision, proceed to add sub-nodes. See further information about Mind Maps from Tony Buzan. I’m using Mindmup.

Holistic: Flow Notes

The point of flow notes is to treat yourself like the student you are, and not a lecture-transcribing machine.

Jot down topics, draw arrows, make little doodles and diagrams and graphs. Go crazy. Engage with the material. Try to actively learn as you’re writing.

Easy: Writing on Slides

Get the slides from the lecture and then use these to take further notes and jot down things you remember.

For articles, you could use the headings and subheadings as visual cues for remembering and jotting down notes.

Visual: Bullet Journaling

When you write in your bullet journal, you turn a blank page into a beautiful representation of your thought process. Try using it to combine different aspects of other note-taking styles. You can have one page that’s dedicated to mind maps, another that’s dedicated to your flow notes, and even sneak in a class schedule or a doodle of Sonic the Hedgehog in somewhere. It’s your bullet journal. I don’t know, do what you want! It’s your journal!

The lesson from these last six tips is to work at taking notes and learning. Taking notes straight to a laptop is not as useful for making connections and being able to internalise the points from the article.

Galval, J author and Galvan M (ed) write about Conducting a Literature Review:

First, attempt to provide a comprehensive and up-to-date review of the topic.

Second, try to demonstrate that you have a thorough command of the field you are studying.

Students writing a literature review chapter frequently ask, “How many research articles must I cite?” In addition, they ask, “How long should I make the review?” Some students are frustrated when they learn that there is no minimum either on the number of research articles to review or on the length of a review chapter.

Some questions that the Galvans pose in relation to reading articles and taking notes, are as follows:

  1. Are there any obvious sampling problems? Explain. (Do not just read the section under the subheading “Sample” because researchers sometimes provide additional information about the sample throughout their reports, especially in the introduction, where they might point out how their sample is different from those used by other researchers, or near the end, where they might discuss the limitations of the sample in relation to the results.)
  2. Are there any obvious measurement problems? Explain.
  3. Has the researcher examined only a narrowly defined problem? Explain.
  4. Did you notice any other flaws? Explain.
  5. Overall, do you think the research makes an important contribution to advancing knowledge? Explain.


I have listed a few methods of note-taking while being conscious of the fact that there are undoubtedly more out there. However, while researching notes I wasn’t writing any of my own so that has to be a priority. When I discover new techniques, I’ll come back and update this page.

The purpose of this post was to look at which skills I could ‘Drill’, i.e. practise over and over until I improved. I am a step closer to that.


College Info Geek https://collegeinfogeek.com/how-to-take-notes-in-college/

Corcoran, V. (2018) What I wish I knew before starting grad school https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2018/10/31/advice-about-grad-school-phd-holder-looking-back-decade-later-opinion

Galvan, J.L, & Galvan, M.C. (editor) (2017) Writing Literature Reviews; Taylor & Francis.

Kara, H. (2015) Starting Your PhD https://helenkara.com/writing/know-more-publishing/

Self evaluation, feedback on timings

One part of this ultralearning project is about achieving a PhD-level of research by myself without a higher education institution; the other part though is not needing to be constrained by typical time limitations. Could I research and write up a thesis and pass a viva, or submit for a PhD via publication in under three years?

That depends on how I can manage my time. Keeping a track of how long the work actually takes me, therefore, needs to be a necessary part of my feedback to myself. I’m not here to impress anyone but to fulfil a task I have set myself.

My initial plan is to keep track and report weekly on how long different parts of the work are taking me.

Some ideas of categories:

  • Researching new sources
    • Carpini, D., After Broadcast News; What Americans know about politics and why it matters;
    • Spatial analysis;
    • Handbook of Propaganda
    • Information effects
    • Media effects
  • Researching linked sources
    • Still following up references from Schefeule et al; still in the Comms Studies subject.
    • Received Kennamer’s Public Opinion, The Press and Public Policy;
  • Reading about doctoral education
    • Patrick Dunleavy’s How to Author a Phd
      • Different styles of arguments in theses;
      • I am reading it as an ebook and have set myself the task of reading at least 1% before I go to bed each night. I am up to 26% (27% now. This blog post has taken two days).
    • 15 minutes to writing a thesis by Joan Bolker
    • Article on grad school advice; particular note on how to take notes.

I spent about 1.5 hours doing the above. I haven’t written anything original or in terms of literature review. I didn’t even take notes of any research. This lack of actual reading and of writing is my main worry.

I’m still adding references from the Scheufele article and adding them to Zotero. I then find articles or books from those authors and add more.

I need to make sure I am reading something each day and taking notes, however, not just researching how to research.

It’s the school holidays for another two weeks so I have the children to take care of, and work to do as well. There will be a bit more time to study once school starts in September.

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.” https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/research-writing

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