#litreview. Defining – It’s your ‘take’

Most of us work in occupied research territories. Other researchers have been around at least some of the things that we are concerned with. Their work offers particular interpretations and perhaps ‘evidence’ that may – or may not – be useful to us as we work out what we are going to do.

Other people’s work is really helpful when we are deciding what our key terms will mean. Most of us use terminology in our research question or hypothesis which needs some explanation. One or more key terms. We have to say how we understand the term, and why. We have to say what we will include and exclude. We have to offer our take, what readers need to know about our particular version of the term. referring to other people’s work to help us make the case. 

I often see people struggling with this kind of definitional work. Their first drafts are often a paragraph which goes – A understands (key concept) as this, B says it’s that and C has a different version again. But I’m using D which goes like this. 

At this point I – and I am sure most other supervisors write – But why D? What is it about D that is important to you? And what are the implications of using D – what gets left out and what seems to be taken as important? Who else uses D and how? Does this matter? My hunch is that many people get a bit stymied about how to answer these kinds of questions.

I/the supervisor is actually asking for a little case to be made with some evidence and some interpretation about the term We are asking for your take. Here is where it is really helpful to read other people’s work to see the way in which they manage this task. How do they establish their take on their key terms?

Reading for the writing

Here is one example of researchers offering their take – making a case for the ways in which they are going to interpret a particular term. This example is a small section of the first chapter of a 2020 book called Culture is bad for you. I am using this example because I think the authors do a great job of explaining their take on a very complex topic in a very clear way. This whole chapter could be a really helpful teaching resource – and I can’t really do justice to the careful definitional and explanatory work that the authors do in a short blog post.

In this small section from pages 20 and 21 the authors outline their take on inequality – a term that has been used by loads of people over a long period of time and in many different ways. They go on to expand on and explain inequality further throughout the book but here, at the start, they are sketching the ground that they are going to cover. 

Here’s the extract. The numbers refer to groups of references that are given in endnotes – that is, the backing for their take. 

Inequality is now an important subject for academic research. Much of this has been driven by economists and sociologists. (25) That work has tended not to look at cultural and creative industries. Cultural and media studies have done extensive research on the subject. We’re aiming to situate our analysis between these fields. 

There is extensive, and highly politicised, debate about the nature and extent of inequality. (26) This includes the extent of inequality within countries, as well as between countries. (27) 

In the UK, along with countries such as the United States and France, the focus of research has been on inequality between the very ‘top’ of society and the rest of the population. The core argument here is that wealth inequalities are becoming greater. This is because profits from financial resources are outstripping growth in other areas of the economy, such as wages. This means that those who already have financial assets are getting richer faster than the rest of society. (28) 

The setting for these economic changes is a decade of reduced levels of overall economic growth and reduced levels of government spending following the financial crisis of 2008. Just as the richest at the top of society are getting richer, social support for the poorest has been reduced. (29) 

Economic inequality is only one part of the story. There are various other forms of division reflecting our unequal society. (30) We can see this in research showing the persistence of gender and racial discrimination, along with prejudice against other types of minorities. (31) Inequality is also, in the UK and elsewhere, seen in geographic divides, for example between London and the rest of England. (32) 

We can think of these examples as social inequalities. These social divisions are linked to other sorts of resources beyond financial assets. These can include social networks and social connections. (33) Crucially, they have a cultural dimension. These sorts of inequalities are about what is valued and what is given worth. (34) This is the first part of our connection between inequality and the study of cultural production and consumption.

You can see at once that there is no A says and B says. Instead, there is a position being outlined. The authors explain how they understand inequality, show what they base their interpretation on. In doing this, they say what their project and the book are going to cover. And not.

Let’s look at the extract in a bit more detail.  What appears below is of course my take on their take – and the authors may explain what they were doing quite differently. But you know, my blog, my take. Your research, your take.

Inequality is now an important subject for academic research. Much of this has been driven by economists and sociologists. (25). That work has tended not to look at cultural and creative industries. Cultural and media studies have done extensive research on the subject. We’re aiming to situate our analysis between these fields.LOCATING THE RESEARCH. We have an interdisciplinary approach.  
There is extensive, and highly politicised, debate about the nature and extent of inequality. (26)SIGNIFICANCE We’re offering one take on a hot topic. 
This includes the extent of inequality within countries, as well as between countries. (27) In the UK, along with countries such as the United States and France,WHAT’S GOING TO BE EXCLUDED. Inequality is generally understood as national and international. We agree but we’re looking at the UK only – but read knowing that there are parallels with other countries. 
the focus of research has been on inequality between the very ‘top’ of society and the rest of the population. The core argument here is that wealth inequalities are becoming greater. This is because profits from financial resources are outstripping growth in other areas of the economy, such as wages. This means that those who already have financial assets are getting richer faster than the rest of society. (28) The setting for these economic changes is a decade of reduced levels of overall economic growth and reduced levels of government spending following the financial crisis of 2008. Just as the richest at the top of society are getting richer, social support for the poorest has been reduced. (29)WHAT’S GOING TO BE INCLUDED.
STEP ONE. (What I’ve highlighted in bold is about as close to a simple “definition”as the authors get.)
Other researchers usually look at the most wealthy versus the rest of us, referring to wider economic and social changes. We are going to do this too.
Economic inequality is only one part of the story. There are various other forms of division reflecting our unequal society. (30) We can see this in research showing the persistence of gender and racial discrimination, along with prejudice against other types of minorities. (31) Inequality is also, in the UK and elsewhere, seen in geographic divides, for example between London and the rest of England. (32) We can think of these examples as social inequalities. STEP TWO. But we also include social inequalities of gender, race and location, these are linked to economic inequalities. 
These social divisions are linked to other sorts of resources beyond financial assets. These can include social networks and social connections. (33)STEP THREE. And we include social networks and connections.
Crucially, they have a cultural dimension. These sorts of inequalities are about what is valued and what is given worth.STEP FOUR. We suggest that economic and social inequalities have a cultural dimension so we are going to discuss cultural value.
This is the first part of our connection between inequality and the study of cultural production and consumption.MOVING ON Having told you how we understand inequality we now need to look at the next key term and concept. 

This take is one example of the kind of rhetorical work that you see in book introductions and in some journal articles. It is also the kind of rhetorical work that supervisors and examiners want to see in a thesis. How does the researcher explain their take on their topic?

So here’s a strategy if you’re doing this kind of laying out the ground and definitional work. Take a bit of time out to see how other researchers in your field do this work.

You will see that offering your take doesn’t follow a set pattern – so the extract above doesn’t offer you a template or formula. But you will see something in common across most versions of the definitional take – the most readable ‘takes’ are those which don’t focus on the names of other researchers, but instead get to grips with the concept itself as it applies to the specific research project. 

Photo by Gabe Rebra on Unsplash

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, argument, definition, literature review, literature reviews and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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