Work with literatures is an integral part of scholarship. There are four key tasks accomplished through engagement with texts that others have produced. These are:
(1) To map the field or fields relevant to the inquiry. This is likely to involve both showing something of the historical development of the field(s),discussing its empirical and theoretical bases and biases, as well as identifying major debates, key figures and seminal texts.
(2) To establish which studies, ideas and/or methods are most pertinent to the specific research being undertaken. No project starts from scratch – new research both uses and builds on existing findings. These pre-made building blocks are acknowledged through scrupulous citation practices.
(3) To create the warrant for the research. This may involve identifying gaps, bringing together ideas and approaches which have previously remained separate and/or speaking to a particular difficulty, puzzle or debate within the field. Through these three processes, researchers are equipped to not only argue why their research is needed and important, but they also are able:
(4) To identify the particular contribution that their research will make. Work with literatures allows researchers to name the conversation(s) which they will enter into and to articulate the ‘chunk’ of knowledge they are offering to the scholarly community.
Barbara Kamler and I (1) have suggested that ….
Rather than literature work being a technical matter – simply reading a lot, summarising and grouping books and articles and then writing a chapter as a series of thematised lists – it is more helpful to think that:
(1) the literature is not a monolith, it is plural
Many researchers find that, in order to position, legitimate and connect their work to that of others, they need to use a range of texts – policy documents, professional reading, articles from the popular press and web-based documents as well as books and journal articles that are ‘scholarly’. In some instances, the range may even include novels, films and cartoons. And the texts may well straddle a number of different fields. We suggest, therefore, that it is appropriate to talk about the literatures, rather than imply that there is a single homogenous corpus.
(2) the literatures comprise a field or fields of knowledge production
The purpose of reading the literatures is to ascertain what is known about a particular topic. We read to see the categories that are used by others to sort, sift, foreground and background the field. We look to see what previous work has been mobilised and which has been ignored. We evaluate the methods used to generate the data and the argument; we might ask, for example, who are the research participants – how many, when, where and how were they involved? We also look to see what view of knowledge underpins each text. Taken together, these questions allow us to compare and contrast and to develop a view of the ‘clumps’ of literatures which share common characteristics or approaches.
(3) the task is not to review
While it is necessary to summarise texts and to make lists of findings and arguments, this is only a first step in constructing what is commonly called ‘the literature review’. We think the notion of review is unhelpful because it implies that what is required is to produce a laundry list of summarised texts. Such lists often lack a point of view and an evaluative stance from the writer.
There are significant differences in opinion on how to define school improvement. Gray et al (1999) point out that school improvement secures year-on-year improvement in the outcomes of successive cohorts of similar pupils. Improvement is measured in terms of raising attainment of all students over time (Chapman 2002). In other words it increases the school’s effectiveness over time. In contrast, Mortimore (1998) describes school improvement as the process of improving the way a school is organized, its aims, expectations, ways of learning, methods of teaching and organizational culture. For Gray et al (1999) student outcomes are pre-eminent, whereas for Mortimore (1998) it is the process that is vital. Hopkins (2001) combines these two ideas i.e. school improvement and school’s capacity by describing school improvement as a ‘distinct approach to educational change that aims to enhance students’ outcomes as well as strengthening the school’s capacity for managing change (p 23).
If the common ‘he said, she said’ laundry list formula is used, as in this example, the writing may also obscure the ideas being discussed.
(4) the task is to map the field
The job of engaging with the literatures is to locate the place for the research and decide which conversation the research is joining. The task is to clarify and make explicit the contribution that the research will make and its relationships with prior scholarship. This example of an introductory paragraph to a literature chapter effectively signposts the mapping that is to be undertaken.
I turn now to what is already known about teenage pregnancy and education. I look first at why, according to the literatures, pregnant and mothering teenagers are viewed as educationally vulnerable and I detail the policy guidance to local authorities and schools that has resulted. I note the minimal focus on education in the lives of teenage mothers relative to other research and also the limited work which foregrounds the views and experiences of young mother themselves. It is this gap to which I aim to contribute to filling.
The writing clearly identifies the topic of the research and announces its intention to address patterns and types of knowledge and their sources. In doing so, a space is created to situate the research. The content can be deleted from this passage in order to make explicit the syntactic moves that have been made.
I turn now to what is already known about ………………. I look first at why, according to the literatures, …………… and I detail the ………………. that has resulted. I note the minimal focus on … ……………………… relative to other research and also the limited work which foregrounds the ……………………… . It is this gap to which I aim to contribute to filling.
(1) KAMLER, B and THOMSON, P, 2011. Working with literatures. In: SOMEKH, B, LEWIN, K, eds. Research methods in the social sciences. 2nd ed. Sage, pp. 16-24
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