doing the literature review – thinking about patterns and groups

If you’ve ever watched small children playing then you’ll know that one of the things that they do is to sort things into groups. A bunch of coloured pens, pencils and markers can be sorted by type, colour, size, shape, condition and so on. Type and colour could be expected to come before shape and condition – but not always.

Another thing that children do is to find patterns and repeat them over and over. I used to enjoy making patterns using a compass when I was in primary school. Looking back I can’t imagine why, but the teacher in me knows that I was also learning about shapes and spatial and mathematical relationships.

These two activities – grouping and finding patterns – are fundamental to the way that children learn about the world. They learn big categories of things first, like dog – and then learn that the big group can be further divided up – into breeds in the case of dogs. They also learn that patterns can be made out of groups of things. A picture of dogs might be divided into breeds and then organised into a pattern of sizes and colours.

This kind of learning-as-categorising is fundamental to making knowledge through research.

We are engaged in constructing groups out of bits of data. We clump them together in some way according to a logic that we need to articulate and justify. Then we often have to invent a new category name to describe the group, rather than taking one which already exists. When we talk about grouping in data analysis we usually think of this as thematising. We also make new patterns out of our data, and again, we sometimes have to make up names for the pattern we have generated through our analytic activities.

Grouping and patterning are also fundamental to the literature review.

After reading a lot of texts you are able to put groups of them together because they are about the same topic or take the same epistemological approach, or use the same methods or the same samples or have similar concerns. These groups can be named something appropriate to their common focus and their shared characteristics can then be discussed. Many people advocate mind-mapping as a means of grouping.

An example of how this kind of grouping might inform the organisation of a literature review might go something like …

Literatures in higher education can be discussed in terms of their disciplinary focus or whether they address substantive issues of practice. The two most common practice topics addressed are pedagogical change and staff development. Each of these takes up questions of online learning, the subject of my research. In this literature review I therefore firstly address online learning and pedagogical change and then secondly discuss x aspects of professional development, viz. I then return to the disciplinary literatures to see how the specificities of ’subject’ might need to be taken into account in each of these two areas and in my research project.

Once you can see that there are different groups of texts, it is also often possible to see a pattern that has emerged. For example, many topics fall into disciplinary patterns – they might come from either a sociological or a psychological discipline for example; the ways in which these disciplines shape what is done, seen and said cuts across groups. Or it may be that there is a recognisable chronological pattern – the way that research has been conducted, or a problem understood – can be seen to follow a particular set of stages. We often talk for example of first, second and third wave feminism. This is a pattern.

Understandings of patterning can similarly inform the ways in which a literature review is organised. For example…

Research into peer friendships can be located within three distinct disciplinary frames – medical, psychological and sociological. There is also an educational literature. My particular research works in the sociological tradition. I therefore firstly provide a brief review of what might be learned from the medical and psychological literatures. I then discuss the distinguishing epistemological and methodological features of a sociological approach before going to onto a more detailed discussion of the major themes that are found in these literatures. I next canvass the relevant educational texts and conclude by addressing feminist educational studies of peer friendships, since this is where my research is situated and aims to make its contribution.

In these two examples groups and patterns have provided a way to organise the literature review. This organisation is flagged up at the start of the writing and the meta-commentary forms a road map for the various sections of the text to come.

It is also worth noting the ‘funnelling’ process that occurs in the latter example; it begins with the big discipline groups and then moves inwards to a specific disciplinary subgroup.

In a future post I will talk about storyboarding as a way of thinking about meta-commentary and organisation.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, grouping and patterning, literature review, meta-commentary, signposts, thematisation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to doing the literature review – thinking about patterns and groups

  1. Hi Pat, very useful post. I’m in the literature review phase of my PhD right now, and I’ve been working on a bunch of tools that hopefully enable me to work more effectively, and at the same time share what I am producing with others. I made a little video-walkthrough here:

    Would love to hear about what tools and approaches other people use!


    • pat thomson says:

      Hi Stian, that’s interesting. I’m sure other people would be interested in the tools. I generally suggest to people that they use some focussed questions for note taking which follow a common format. This also makes it easier to tag and cut and paste into other docs.


  2. Pingback: working with literatures #phdknowhow | patter

  3. Pingback: Nvivo: Year 1 of your PhD | Qualitative Research

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