The title of this post – and of this stage of the literature review – might sound confusing. How can you both step back and focus in?
Well I want you to imagine that you’re in an art gallery. If you’re up very close-up to a painting you might be able to see brush stokes and pencil marks, which is all very well if this is important to you. But in being that close you do lose the holistic appreciation of the painting. Sometimes you see things most clearly from a distance. In reality, you very often have to step back to appreciate the finer details of the image in the context of the whole.
This is the stage I’m now up to in the literature review. I’ve scoped – so I have some idea of who is researching and writing about blogging and where. I’ve themed – so I know research papers that are relevant to the one that I’m working on with Thesis Whisperer. My themes include papers that are exactly on our topic, and ones that could be related. What I need to do now is to – step back and focus in.
I still have some important questions about the literatures:
(1) What is the history of research in the field? Where has it come from and why this route? What might be directions it could take in future?
(2) What are the key debates in the field? What is at stake in their construction?
(3) Who are the key figures in the field and why?
I’m going to talk first of all about why these questions are important. That’s this post. In the next post, I’ll bring these questions to my particular literature review and provide some tentative answers in relation to the work that we are doing.
So, why these questions?
(1) The history of the field
Many of us work on questions that have been around for quite some time (although that is not true in the case of blogging!). Getting a handle on the way in which the field has developed helps us to think about:
• the ways in which particularities such as time, place, and culture might have affected the development of knowledge about the topic
• the blank spots that might have been produced through this particular knowledge making trajectory
• how we can avoid naively situating our research in a set of literatures that many in the field now see as outdated and discredited. If we want to use texts that could fall into this category, we need to do so consciously and anticipate the criticisms.
To give a concrete example, feminist analysis has gone through a number of iterations, and it is important for researchers positioning their work as feminist to do three things – understand these shifts, what they have and haven’t done, and to be able to locate themselves and their work in relation to this history.
(2) debates in the field.
Many fields of research have ongoing or episodic debates. Sometimes they’ve developed bunkered lines of inquiry and researchers find it difficult to talk across them to each other because they are rooted in different disciplines or different epistemological/methodological traditions.
The debate with which most doctoral researchers are familiar is that between quantitative and qualitative methods. I very often read theses which trawl the literatures about this binary. I sometimes read a claim for methodological resolution via mixed methods. Only occasionally do I read an argument which says that it is not the number or word that matter, but rather the ontological and epistemological positioning of the research. As a researcher/reader, I know that each of these positions – the binary, the methodological resolution and the philosophical explanation – exists in the field. A thesis writer who has stepped back and REALLY focused in on this debate and positioned themselves within it, will have located the various arguments rather than simply reproduced either the binary or a simplistic argument for mixed methods. As an examiner, I am likely to assume that the researcher who knows the debates knows more about research. As a reviewer of a journal article, I would recommend revisions if the debate was not dealt with adequately, on the grounds that the writer did not know the field.
Some topics do have pretty clear disciplinary strands – questions around health for example often have three distinct lines of inquiry drawn from social sciences, psychology and medicine – and now there is increasingly a fourth from arts and humanities, and in some interdisciplinary projects a fifth option, where more than one of these lines of research are combined. So, if a researcher is working in a field in which different disciplinary strands exist, it is important to understand that, and not to bundle together disparate and conflicting references together as if they are the same. Tracing the various disciplinary trajectories can be pretty useful work in order to position your own study.
There are also often quite different ontological and epistemological foundations that exist in the same field. To give an example from my own area, questions of poverty and schooling are dealt with very differently by different researchers. One of the most common debates around this topic is about how much social processes frame and limit school activities and students’ successes, and how much schools can be expected to do. How questions around equity and social justice are researched depends very much on where the researcher stands in this debate. Anyone researching in this area who does not understand this debate, which does get very heated from time to time, cannot articulate their contribution and deal with alternative and contradictory points of view.
(3) key figures in the field
Just imagine trying to write about the notion of surveillance without mentioning Foucault, or risk society without reference to Ulrich Beck. I’m sorry that these are Social Science examples but I hope they make the point that there are often key – but also important minor figures – in a field, and we need to find out who they are. We need to acknowledge these scholars and to say whee we stand in in relation to their texts. Ignoring their work means that we are not really located in the field at all, but off somewhere in a little world of our own, talking to ourselves.
And one more thing…
Because questions (1) –(3) are important in the process of coming to terms with a field of literatures, one of the very good things to do at the start of literature work is to see if anyone has already done a beginner’s guide. If this hasn’t happened (and there isn’t one about research into blogging!), then we need to be on the lookout, as we do our scoping and mapping work, to spot recurring references and names, different kinds of disciplinary approaches, and different questions and research traditions.
But, even if we have diligently done this, at the end of the scoping and mapping stages, we do still need to have a separate think – and write – about what we have to say about history, debates, key figures – and of course, what these might have to say to our own piece of research.
See my blogging answers next post.
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