Everyone knows that doing research means doing lots of reading. And that Reading leads to literature reviews which are crucial to research proposals, theses and papers.
The most common way to think about working with the literatures is to use the term ‘review’. As I have above. And the clear and present danger in ‘reviewing’ literature is that it leads to a kind of essay-like writing – a listy run through of everything that has been read.
NO NO all the advice literature says – including patter – no lists. A literature review is not an assignment. You don’t listicle, you need to say how you are using the literature in your work. And that means… deep breath…
You’ve got to say where your work is positioned in the field and what your contribution is going to be, and you do that through situating your work in the available literatures. And you need to say just which of the literatures you’re going to build on and how. And you want to indicate which of the literatures are key to helping you make sense of your work – you specify what texts you use in your research design and your analysis. And of course, you’ll need to refer back to the literatures at the end of your research in order to say what you have actually contributed.
Sorting the literatures out often seems like fighting your way through fog, not knowing where you are going or why. Chewing cotton wool, not knowing what to swallow and what to spit out.
And that’s a lot of work to be covered through the reading. I often ask myself, are all of those tasks most helpfully named as ‘review’?
Well, how about thinking about the literatures as a RESOURCE.
A resource to help you think.
The literatures don’t do the thinking for you. The thinking is up to you. But you don’t do it alone. You’re in the company of loads of other scholars who’ve thought about the same topic and left resources for you to use.
Let’s unpack this a bit more. The resources in your reading provide ideas, theories and concepts. They offer specific terminology. Approaches you might take. Results you can build on.
And you have to find the resources that are going to help you. That means searching and sorting out what’s useful to your particular research and what’s not.
So what resources are you looking for?
You’re looking for literature resources which offer
- “evidence’ you can use to justify what you want to do
- concepts, theories and language that you can use to focus your question, refine your research design, help you analyse and make sense of your results
- results and interpretations which you can compare and contrast with your own results
As well, you’d really like to find literature resources to challenge you, resources that jolt you out of the usual way you’ve found to approach your topic.
Part of the purpose of reading then is about becoming resource-full, having abundant ideas, theories, concepts, evidence and language you can call on.
So perhaps the point of the literature review is now more focused and less diffuse. It’s tied to the stages of your research. You focus on your research rather than ‘the review’. And perhaps thinking of your research first makes the reading a little simpler to scope and do.
First of all you read and review the literatures to understand where you are – to orient and position your research and its contribution in the field.
And secondly, you also read and review so you can locate the resources that are going to help you think through the various stages of your research.
Then. And then.
You can then think about how you write about the literatures. If writing about the literatures isn’t an essay or a list, what is it? Simple- it’s two related and overlapping chunks –
- one part about the field its traditions, debates, histories and the location of your research and
- the second part about the resources you have identified that you are going to use in sorting through the various stages of your research.
And of course, you may not know at the start which resources are going to help you to makes sense of your results since you don’t yet know what these results are. And that means you can’t write the final final version of your literatures work until you know what resources you’ve called on and how you’ve used them.