Working with literatures is a complex task. It is one of the places where doctoral and early career researchers come unstuck. One of the very many reasons that it’s problematic is, in my view, because there is not sufficient discussion of the very many scholarly processes that go into developing the ‘review’.
This post features a list of what John Unsworth calls ‘scholarly primitives’. He suggests that these are ‘basic functions common to scholarly activities across disciplines’. Unsworth developed this list to think about the digital humanities, but I think it has other uses. Even though his universalizing claim makes me very nervous, the list could be, I reckon, a helpful reminder about the various practices that largely go under the radar of the term ‘literature review’.
How? Well, Unsworth’s list might work as a kind of checklist of all of the things that we have to do in order to have half a chance of producing a defensible text about literatures. The list could serve as a kind of self-checking mechanism to make sure that each of these functions has been systematically undertaken. In that sense, the list acts as a thinking tool for helping us to consider each particular aspect of literatures work – and not to take any of them for granted or indeed, to think that any of them can be skipped.
Here, I’ve taken Unsworth’s terms, and then added detail specifically in relation to literatures work.
(1) Discovering – searching library data bases, journal websites, archives, using reference lists in key texts as a starting point, reading introductions to/handbooks on etc
(2) Annotating – writing notes and key words relevant to your research on each text so that individual items can be retrieved when needed, as well as making them amenable to aggregation and thematisation/categorisation
(3) Comparing – elaborating the similarities and differences in location/time/method/ design/sample/finding/theory across texts which are in the same theme/category
(4) Referring – acknowledging the texts that your work is building on, and citing them correctly
(5) Sampling – choosing, from the corpus of texts that are available, which ones to reference and how, and working out how to justify this choice
(6) Illustrating – working with the selected textual sample to clarify, explain, elaborate and define work in the field and its relation to your own research.
Unsworth’s seventh point describes what happens after these six functions are completed.
(7) Representing – the process of authoring – putting the literatures work into a textual form – and in ways in that ‘show’ that each of the previous six functions has been accomplished carefully and rigorously and imaginatively.
OK so this is a pretty bald statement. Certainly, other thinking tools are needed to assist in accomplishing this final function. Nevertheless, the notion of the final text being a representation of all of the work that has been undertaken is a helpful reminder that one of the purposes of the literature review is to ‘show’ a reader that you haven’t just taken a random collection of any old texts, but have undertaken a very scholarly task, consisting of multiple processes.
Unsworth, J ( 2000) “Scholarly Primitives: what methods do humanities researchers have in common, and how might our tools reflect this?” in “Humanities Computing: formal methods, experimental practice” King’s College, London, May 13, 2000.