One of the most common problems in thesis literature reviews is The List. This is when the doctoral researcher produces a chapter which is basically just a summary of various texts.
The reader gets “So and so said this… so and so said this.. so and so said this… “ Or “One definition of the topic is x. Another is y. A further option is z….” or “There are many approaches to topic. Here they are….a b c d…. “ There are page and pages organised under headings, but it is basically a set of summaries. Indeed, you can put a bullet point next to each new text as it’s introduced, start it on a new line, and reveal the basic list structure.
What’s wrong with The List?
Well, first of all it’s pretty tedious to read. Thinks about what gets made into lists – laundry, shopping, things to do. Hardly the most riveting reads. And, presenting a reader with something that is destined to bore them to tears is not a good idea.
But the other more important problem is that The List shows that the reader doesn’t know which of these literatures is more important than the others. Each item on the list appears to be pretty much the same. The writer hasn’t indicated which is the most relevant to the specific research they are doing, what they think about them or how they relate to each other. So the reader hasn’t got a clue where the writer actually stands in relation to any of the literatures being presented.
But, when the reader is the thesis examiner they may well conclude from a literature review as The List that:
(1) it’s possible the writer hasn’t sorted out the relevant and irrelevant material they’ve read and has simply put down everything
(2) it’s possible that the writer doesn’t know how to be critical because there is no evidence in the text that they have done any evaluation, they have simply summarized a lot of texts
(3) it’s possible that this is a random selection of texts rather than a systematic survey of the field, and
(4) it’s possible that if the writer lacks the critical capacity to sort the literatures, then they may well have the same uncritical approach to their data.
Who needs their examiner to think this?
Now the problem with The List is often not any of the above. It is actually because the writer has written their literature chapter far too soon.
Summarising and making lists IS part of literature work. It’s just not the final part. It’s a stage you have to go through in order to produce the kind of literature review that’s actually needed and expected.
A good literature review is one where the writer steps back to consider the field or fields as a whole. They are then able to discuss the development of the field, foundational and key texts and debates as well as indicate the literatures which provide the basis for their work. They are able to discuss the relative merits of this work and show where their contribution will be located.
You can only do this if you’ve done the summaries.
But that’s not all that needs doing. Stop at this point and sort the pieces into groups – and all you have is The List.
Stop at this point and present The List and chances are you may well be asked to rewrite. At the very least the examiner-reader will have made some negative judgments about what comes next.
And that’s just not good enough.