mapping your literatures

Mapping is a helpful ‘thinking’ strategy for putting together emerging ideas about the books and papers that you have read.  Just like a map of the physical environment, a map of the literatures highlights prominent features, shows how key points are connected or disconnected and establishes different aspects of what you have seen/read. A literatures map is a way of designing and framing  your re-presentation of the reading you have done.

Visually mapping the relationships between different texts is a further process of analysis. It follows on from summary and synthesis. When you map your reading, you are looking for the groupings and patterns that you can identify. Mapping requires you to both evaluate and categorise your reading – just as you would do with other forms of research data. Mapping is also a process of interpretation and making judgments.

Daisy's map of key figures in the field wasn't quite what her supervisor expected

Daisy’s initial map of key figures in the field wasn’t quite what her supervisor expected

When you first start your reading, you may not be able to do any mapping. Perhaps it is too early or you are not yet able to think about your contribution to the field. But mapping is certainly something that could form the basis of a supervision conversation – the supervisor’s greater knowledge of the field can help you to talk through what are less important literatures. Supervisors can guide you in deciding what literatures can’t be left out, as well as what might be left for you to ‘must read’.

The physical act of making a map, a visual representation of your reading, can help you, in sum, to:

  • make new connections. Shifting from writing to a visual form may help you to see things more graphically and this can often produce new insights.
  • identify gaps in your reading
  • consolidate your thinking to date
  • actively frame your study through the processes of selecting, rejecting, and categorizing books and papers
  • get used to and comfortable with the processes of scholarly interpretation
  • find out where your research ‘fits’ in relation to the field(s) your work draws on
  • position yourself in a conversation with other scholars via their writings, and
  • sharpen your own argument for the space and significance of your research.

Chris Hart describes mapping as an important way to map ideas.

Mapping ideas is about setting out, on paper, the geography of research and thinking that has been done on a topic. At one level, it is about identifying what has been done, when it was done, what methods were used and who did what. At another level, it is about identifying links between what has been done, to show the thinking that has influenced what has been produced (p.144).

Hart suggests a number of methods for mapping ideas, arguments and concepts. These include:

  • feature maps – making a summary schema of arguments proposed by a study and similarities/differences with other studies on the topic
  • tree constructions -showing the way major topics develop sub-themes and related questions
  • content maps – organizing a topic into its various hierarchical arrangements and
  • chronologies – showing the development of a field over time, identifying key figures and debates.

Each of these mapping approaches are useful and you may want to try more than one of them to see what they can do/what you can do with them. Any of Hart’s four map types will help you to identify connections across your reading, and to consider relationships and influences. Maps will even help you to get critical about the material you like a lot.

To prepare yourself for making a literatures map, it can be very helpful to talk about your difficulties in selecting and categorizing texts with a knowledgeable peer- perhaps another doctoral researcher. It is useful in such conversations to focus on the worrying edges – what to leave out and put in – because talking through what’s in and out of scope can help you to clarify what you think are the most important core questions/topics/themes germane to your own project.

You can undertake literatures maps serially, at various points during the doctorate, going back to think again and again about borders, prominent features, key themes and connections. You can build the mapping ‘thinking tool’ into your routine as you progress through your research, as you continue to read and revise your understandings of the field.

If you haven’t already played with maps, why not give them a go?

Note: I haven’t provided any sample literatures maps because there are lots of variations on how you can do them. I worry that any one map I might produce could be seen as The Way to Do It.  I think it’s good to design your own map. But if you do want to get some initial ideas, then you could check out google images, typing in “literature review + map”.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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9 Responses to mapping your literatures

  1. Collette Snowden says:

    Thanks Pat – have passed this on to a few of my post-grad students!


  2. I am curious if you know of any good discussions of tools for generating literature maps from collections of papers?

    I have a large collection of sources, and have read various sources that talk about how a literature map might be generated from a collection of papers (generally from XML or text data sources): variations on “relationship maps” of the kind often used in social media research.

    I am wondering if you had any ideas where I might look (or what terms I might use to look) for more specific details for applying such techniques to literatures rather than, say, twitter posts?

    [Also, the link to “Chris Hart” is broken :(]


    • pat thomson says:

      Ive fixed the link – thanks for letting me know. I think that there is now an NVivo tool that can help generate maps from the papers themselves. Not sure if that will do what you want but worth checking out?


  3. jennymackness says:

    Thank you Pat – this is interesting – and the link to the different types of maps is helpful. I would like to share another one which I have been trying out recently. It’s a tool created by Matthias Melcher ( I created a video to explain how I use it – I have found it very useful for mapping links between papers.


  4. The longer you spend in research the easier this gets, too. It’s big picture vs little for me. When I was doing my thesis I couldn’t find an elegant way of presenting my lit review: in my monograph the sections will form single stand alone chapters. My hubby (an academic who like visual cues) suggested I use a visual cue to provide links to the literature. Bingo! So, using Bronfenbrenner’s ecological systems theory schematic which I had already used in my study, I was able to move in and out of various literatures, both macro and micro. Now, I feel that my approach to lit reviews is almost intuitive. I just start writing, and through writing I can visualise the map. I don’t know about anyone else, but visual and mind maps are terrible for me. Can’t use them very well at all, but in the early days of PhD land I HAD created one (textual) on butcher paper with bright textas. It was useful, but I found I resorted to a linear textual framework pretty fast!


  5. Jane S says:

    It’s OK to do whatever works for you. Mind-mapping’s my best pick. I did one at the launch of PhD research, drawn freehand in pencil on a very large sheet of paper on the dining table. It was intended to cram onto one visual plane all that one felt was relevant to the thesis, the connections and so forth. Now, with a massive pile of 70,000+ words to marshal, I’ll be creating another one – to accompany the first sentence-by-sentence read-through off the page – sorting all repetitions of material (and recording woolly or hanging paras and un-followed-through statements) as well as moving info around, e.g., if something should be in Chapter 2 instead of Chapter 5. This is an exercise ahead of finalising the ‘Conclusions’ chapter. I suspect the second map will be totally different from the first one! But it’s a good technique. The best thing is you can obtain an alternative view of your material. Even just skim-reading the printed-out draft I found glaring errors and typos I didn’t spot on the screen, and I suspect once the material’s all ordered / re-ordered my final conclusions may well not be what I currently think they are. 🙂


    • pat thomson says:

      All kinds of maps are useful. Im a big map fan. Mind mapping is one form. Whatever works for you, I say in the post – its good to build up a repertoire of strategies. These literatures maps are other forms of mapping. Story boarding is also useful as are reverse outlines particularly at the stage that you are at.


  6. Jane S says:

    I didn’t think of storyboarding, Pat ~ might be a nice alternative activity, to postpone inevitable thesis fatigue.
    Reverse outline? You mean a sort of linear ‘map’ of the thesis backwards? I’m having enough trouble with it frontwards! Though this might show up ‘answers’ to questions that were neither posed nor implicit, gaps in the thought-chain, or extraneous padding or waffling. Albeit, I’m quite enjoying this penultimate phase. 🙂


    • pat thomson says:

      Reverse outlining is a process where you look at the headings of sections, and then the first sentence of paragraphs to check on the order or moves in the argument. You can reverse outline at the level of the chapter and at the level of section and paragraph.
      Rachel Cayley has nice explanation of reverse outlines on her explorations of style blog and there is also one in the second edition of our Helping Doctoral Students Write book.
      There are two posts on storyboarding in patter if you use the search function – and its in the current Detox Your Writing book too.


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