It’s the time of year when many doctoral researchers are either just starting their PhDs, or starting to write their texts. Here are some things to remember when approaching the task of working with literatures.
Rather than literature work being a technical matter – simply reading a lot, summarizing 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 diverse/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, blogs, websites and articles from the popular press 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. It is thus often appropriate to talk about the literatures – plural – 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 mobilized and what 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 and similar 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 summarize texts and to make lists of results and arguments, this is only a first step in constructing what is commonly called ‘the literature review’ . The notion of review can be unhelpful because it implies that what is required is to produce a list of summarized texts. This summarizing often results in the ‘ he said, she said’ laundry list formula, where each sentence begins with the name of the researcher(s). Laundry list writing generally lacks a point of view and a clear evaluative stance. The listing technique may be inclusive, but it can – and usually does – obscure the ideas being discussed because they remain so disconnected.
(4) The task is to map the field.
The job of engaging with the literatures is to locate the place for the research and for the researcher to make clear which conversation(s) their research is to join. The task is to clarify and make explicit the contribution that the research will make and its relationships with prior scholarship.
This sentence skeleton – a paragraph for the introduction to a literature chapter – signposts a mapping approach.
This chapter examines what is already known about …..
I look first at why…… …… according to the literatures, and I detail the ……… that has resulted from this work. I note the minimal focus on …… relative to other research on…… and also the limited work which foregrounds the ……… It is this gap to which I aim to contribute.
Filling these gaps potentially 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.
See also these posts:
Making a summary