why​ is writing a literature review such hard work? part two

Yes, some examiners do ask doctoral researchers to change their literature review to show how they are “located” in the text.

OK, let’s pretend this is you. What do those pesky examiners mean exactly?

At one level this is a simple task. You are being asked to say

What key concepts and interpretations you have taken from the literature to inform the design of the study. Because no one does a project entirely from scratch – we all use other people’s work as building blocks – we have to specify exactly what we have borrowed. And you are also being asked to show how you have used concepts, approaches and/or interpretations. (This may well mean for instance that you have to refer back to the literatures when the methods are being explained. For instance, surveys almost always use literatures that have been introduced and explained earlier.)

What key concepts and interpretations from the literatures you will use to  analyse your data. A deductive analysis – working from a general theory to the particular – and an abductive analysis – putting the general and the specific together to form an explanation – require extensive use of literatures.  The concepts and/or approaches that are used in analysis must appear first in the literatures review, may then be taken up in the methods chapter, when the analytic approach is outlined, and are referred to again in the chapters which report the analysis. Inductive analysis – working from the data – also uses literatures, and these also appear first in the literatures chapter and then again during the analysis report and discussion. Even if you read “stuff” after you finished your preliminary analysis, you generally still introduce them earlier. The exception to this rule is if you are writing a chronological thesis, as you might if you are doing action research.

What general approach to the topic that you have taken and where your work sits within the field. Maybe your work sits neatly within an established area. You just need to explain this. You might want to situate yourself in opposition to work which addresses the same topic, but takes a different approach. Both of these options –  work that is like yours, and work that is not – situate your study in the field and show where your contribution will be made. Your research will add something to work that is like yours, and say something to the work that is not. But some research brings multiple strands of research together, so you need to explain what strands you are using and how they fit together. And then you need to locate that in your field alongside the research that yours seeks to inform.

This ‘situating’ work is not easy. If you were to assume that the literature review is a summary or synthesis, then you will have trouble doing this locational work. The problem comes from thinking that the literatures review is simply about saying what is already known about the topic.  But it’s not…

If you think of the entire locational exercise as an argument, you get that the writing is about reasoning. About making a case. Not reporting. Not describing. You use the literatures to argue why your work has been designed as it has and why it is conducted in a particular way. You  use the literatures to help you make the case for your research.

So when you locate, you must move through the review reporting as you go how your work connects with the literatures – or summarise at the end of each chunk how the literatures inform your research.

UnknownSome scholars refer to this kind of intellectual work as the transformation of knowledge. You shift from simply restating other people’s knowledge to presenting your own version of the “stuff”. Joseph Harris describes transforming knowledge as making four integrated moves:

(1) coming to terms with the substantive content, ideas and arguments in the literatures

(2) forwarding – using the literatures to support your argument

(3) countering – thinking against any particular argument that might be made against yours

(4) taking an approach – using the same approach as another scholar (or group) as a stepping stone to somewhere new.

When you take your own perspective on the literatures, and use it to make your case, you can be said to have transformed knowledge. In sum then. Literatures work is a process of locating your work – situating it in the field, and showing what you build on and talk with – and this means that you have been, and are transforming knowledge to position and explain your own study.

51rBglFYB7L.jpgBut wait there’s even more to locational work than this.

Locating your work also requires you to imagine yourself and your work on an equal footing with that of others. You have to have the chutzpah to use the work of others, who are more experienced and expert, to make your own. You can’t be in awe of the literatures. Equally, you don’t need to cut other people’s work into ribbons. You simply have to use it critically and appreciatively. After all, that’s why the literatures exist – to inform and to support further knowledge building.

And thats sometimes easier said than done. There is scholarly-identity work going on when you locate your own work in relation to that of other scholars. Locational literatures work require you to adopt the rhetorical position of a fully-fledged scholar able to hold their own in a scholarly conversation. In transformational and locational literatures work, you are asserting and explaining your selection and interpretation of other people’s work, and laying claim to using their ideas in particular ways for your own ends. It’s all about you, not them. Barbara and I call this text work/identity work.

It is this complex combination of sophisticated argument and authoritative writer that is so hard to do. You are simultaneously transforming knowledge – using the literatures as a resource from which you make the argument for your study – while also establishing yourself as a bona fide researcher able to make a worthwhile and worthy contribution to the literatures.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
This entry was posted in academic writing, Joseph Harris, literature review, text work/identity work, transforming knowledge and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to why​ is writing a literature review such hard work? part two

  1. 23thingsaboutdigitalknowledgepd says:

    Reblogged this on Digital learning PD Dr Ann Lawless and commented:
    bobbydazzler of decoding that dense talk….


  2. emmaquilty says:

    Thankyou so much for this! Perfect timing as always 🙂


  3. MH Thaung says:

    Thank you for explaining this so clearly – I’ve been wrestling with how to explain the “more” that a dissertation or thesis needs, and your post covers it perfectly!


  4. Semra says:

    This explains very good indeed. There is always a continuous struggling process to present the literature rewiew between a chronological order and the purpose of the research study design within a logical yet original manner. This becomes painstakingly engaging thoughtfull process specifically for social sciences where different disciplines earlier works are required to intermingle to use for new purposes.


  5. Anne says:

    Dear Pat, thank you so much for this website. It truly is a goldmine of information. So many times when I have struggled with my PhD, I have found helpful hints and encouragement here which have helped me on my way. Your blog is like my second supervisor!


  6. Reblogged this on Becoming An Educationalist and commented:
    #Becomingeducational Yes – it’s the summer – but…

    We found this post on the difficulties of the Literature Review really helpful in the very practical way it helps PhD students unpack examiner comments and re-shape a Literature Review.

    We especially like – her answers when examiners ask doctoral researchers to change their literature review to show how they are “located” in the text.

    Specifically referring to:
    What key concepts and interpretations you have taken from the literature to inform the design of the study.

    What key concepts and interpretations from the literatures you will use to analyse your data.

    What general approach to the topic that you have taken and where your work sits within the field.

    One to share with all our PhD students.

    Sandra & Tom


  7. Pingback: Is your literature review more than a list? | No Frills Study Skills

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