working with literatures #phdknowhow

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

Recount, summary and argument

Too much naming not enough framing

A questions approach to the literature

Beware the list

Love the uncertainty

The collective and inner library

Scan reading, Taking notes, Patterns and groups

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in laundry, list, literature mapping, literature review, literature themes, PhD and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to working with literatures #phdknowhow

  1. wanderwolf says:

    Thank you for this post, and all other posts. I feel like they prepare me for the work of writing a dissertation soon.


    • Freaknomore says:

      Dear Pat

      My literature review is mostly contrast and compare and fill the gap. I do not do any one particular topic but several ethnographies and similar work done on the theme of dignity and autonomy related to unskilled wage work in rural India. I have tried to bring out even non-Indian materials as it is not region specific in the literature review and neither do I say which one is relevant or not. i have brought very diverse literatures which have not been bought together before but because of the nature of my ethnographic data, I had to go very diverse. However, I am struggling now to tie everything and keep the reader engaged to what I have managed to convey. Please advice.


      • pat thomson says:

        You do need to construct an argument through the text which shows the place that your research fits and the work you are building on and talking to. If you feel as if there is a problem of engagement then it may mean that you are reporting and summarising, rather than arguing. I can’t be more specific than that Im afraid because I don’t know what you’ve done – and I don’t have time to rad it IM afraid…


      • Freaknomore says:

        Thank you Prof. Pat. Would it be possible for you to recommend someone?


  2. durawalla says:

    Reblogged this on Teeny Talks and commented:
    My supervisor tagged this post to my Facebook and asked me to read it. I find it very useful and enlightening.


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  4. Alizee says:

    Thanks for this great post, I will keep in mind (or in a word document!) your “sentence skeleton”, really useful!


  5. Pingback: Organising and searching the literatures | The Digital Doctorate

  6. Pingback: field review | practiceasresearchblog

  7. Pingback: Literature work: Literature review – Amphilosophy

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