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.
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”.