Establishing the pattern
You have developed some research questions and you are keen to investigate them in order to create new knowledge. Before you launch on a particular research trajectory it is important to pause to examine your intellectual frameworks and situate yourself within an academic tradition. An investigation of the relevant literature is essential.
The process of reviewing the literature is often the first step in a well-established pattern of moves in the research performance.
- Start with a research question.
- Look at how others have contributed to an understanding of the issues.
- Establish a gap which needs to be investigated.
- Define your method of investigation.
- Do your research.
- Analyse your own research.
- Point to the next area for investigation.
The product of the analysis of previous research done in the area, the literature review chapter, conventionally presents a descriptive overview of the current research, views, and knowledge in the field being investigated.
Doing a literature review is not about creating a simple summary of all the relevant literature - it is much more focused than that. Reviewing the literature is an ongoing process which must be undertaken in the light of your research question or questions.
What should a literature review do?
- Present an overview of issues in your field and interrelationships between them.
- Identify main issues, findings and common themes.
- Present the current debates on these issues.
- Identify limitations to the existing literature.
- Explain how your research adds to, or contradicts, this body of knowledge.
- Position your dissertation within a theoretical framework.
- Lend support to your arguments.
- Show how your study will make an original contribution to the field.
- Reveal relevant methodologies and theoretical frameworks that you wish to use for your research project.
- Help to justify your research questions.
Where should a literature review be placed in a thesis? Conventionally, the literature review chapter is presented at the beginning of the thesis, although it may also appear at the end, or be integrated throughout the thesis to support arguments and issues as they are discussed. However, reviewing the literature should be an ongoing process, as it is important to situate your analysis against that of other researchers.
Choice of material
You should make clear the relationship between the material in your literature review and your research questions. By doing so you set boundaries on what you discuss in the literature review. For example, do not pursue issues identified in your reading of the literature that are not related to your research questions.
- Clearly define and limit your research investigation.
- Place your research in the context of current research in the field.
- Present critical insight through analysis and debate.
- Point to gaps and criticise methodology.
- Highlight exemplary studies.
Use the initial review of the literature to identify the topic and check that the subject and approach has not already been undertaken. Completely original problems and studies are rare but you should not replicate earlier research unless you can identify weaknesses in the methods or interpretation of data which will make your study different. To test this, ask yourself if the research problem that you have proposed lacks a solution.
When you have clarified your topic as a starting point, review all the literature that is relevant to the research question. Then locate your own research in relation to previous studies in the field. Locate, also, where appropriate, your own work within a theoretical framework.
Establishing direction and flow
Where do you start?
- Start by working from general issues to specific issues.
- Investigate tertiary sources, before moving to secondary sources, and then to primary sources.
What are primary, secondary and tertiary sources? Primary sources are first hand accounts of experiences, research, experiments and investigations, found in journal articles, in conference papers, reports, minutes of meetings, research papers, theses, as well as interviews and questionnaires. Original works such as poems, letters, anecdotes, novels, autobiographies and eyewitness accounts are also primary sources.
Secondary sources are summaries of information collected from primary sources, such as translations, summaries, reviews, abstracts, commentaries and guidebooks.
So what are tertiary sources? Textbooks are good examples, as they are often compiled from secondary sources and can provide an overview. Sometimes they are acknowledged as an authority and acceptable as references, where the primary source is inaccessible and secondary sources are relied on.
Surveying the ideas
What has been written in the field?
- Summarise the key propositions.
- Summarise the key areas.
- Identify problems.
- Summarise the response to propositions.
- Identify examples of field work and methods.
Locating the thinkers
Who has written in the area? Identify who has written in the area and their perspective.
- What do practitioners say?
- What about administrators and policy makers?
- What do other researchers say?
- How is government positioned and informed?
- Is there community debate?
- Where does the media stand on the issues?
Who has made an impact on issues related to the research questions? Consider factors which colour their argument:
- Where are they located?
- What is the period in which their work was written?
Developing skills in critical analysis
When analysing particular articles, you may like to start with the Study Skills resource on Critical analysis. Then use these lists of questions to focus your analysis.
Determine the author's purpose in writing the text. This will be apparent in the introduction and conclusion. Next, pick out the main points and pieces of evidence used to support the author's main assertion. They are usually found in the topic sentences in each paragraph.
Interrogating individual texts
- Who is the author and when was it written?
- How does this colour the author's argument?
- What evidence has the author provided to support his/her argument?
- How convincing is it? How logical is it?
- What assumptions are made by the author?
You can then dig deeper:
- What are the implications of this work?
- What has the author failed to consider?
- What are the values underlying this work?
- How do these compare to your values?
- What is their ethnicity and cultural experience? Their gender? Their age?
- How long ago were they writing?
Mapping the field
- What types of studies have been undertaken in the field?
- What methodology has been used?
- Has the methodology been appropriate to the research questions?
- What key findings have these methods produced?
- Are they consistent with other findings in the field?
- Do they challenge other findings?
- Have they produced debate on their substance and methodology?
- Are there gaps in the field?
- Have some issues been poorly addressed?
- Is there a lack of research in any area?
- How current and locally appropriate is the research?
- Has current research been well tested in the field?
Evaluating the findings
- How have major contributions been received?
- Were they accommodated within existing research paradigms?
- Did they support existing theory?
- Did they challenge existing theory?
- Did they contribute to a new paradigm?
Situating the arguments
- Where does the author stand in the field?
- Do other authors disagree?
- Who and for what reasons?
- Where is the author positioned in the wider debate?
- Does this article advance knowledge in the field and in what way?
Finding your position
- Where do you stand?
- Do you agree or disagree with this author's standpoint?
- Which parts of the argument do you agree or disagree with and for what reasons?
- How much do you like or dislike this article and for what reasons?
Writing the literature review
The literature review should:
- summarise the main ideas, issues and debates
- link these to your thesis questions
- link these to your methodology
- link these to your findings.
You can group or order the literature review in different ways. You may like to organise the review into researchers who agree and disagree. You could organise the review into sections covering debate on your major research questions. Or alternatively, you could explore the issues chronologically to show the direction of current research, linking your own work to the literature review.
- Use a consistent style of writing throughout the dissertation.
- Tie the ideas you are reviewing to your own work.
- Discuss how your research extends or augments ideas that you are reviewing.
- Compare your work to that of others.
Managing the reading material
Read widely in your area of research and subscribe to professional journals in the field. Highlight, underline, or take notes on key words, passages or articles. Use an index system for future reference, thereby building a professional reference library. EndNote is well suited to this task.
- Summarise the main points of an argument in an article.
- Don't expect to read everything in the books and materials you identify in your literature search or you will never get through them.
- Focus first on your research or assignment question before you start reading.
- Decide then on your point of view.
- When you are sure of both of these you will move into your reading with a purpose.
- Use what you know about how people write to explore the reading.
- Search the index for the areas which cover the research question.
- Search the table of contents for the same thing.
- In this way find the important areas of the book or article which relate to your research question.
Reading and note taking
- Skim read topic sentences (they are usually the first sentence in a paragraph).
- Get an overview of how the reading material relates to your research question or topic.
- Use flow charts, diagrams and key words in your notes, suited to your writing style.
- Write questions that come into your mind as your read.
- Paraphrase ideas in your own words.
- Summarise your own thinking on what you are reading.
This resource is based on material originally written for DUPA (the former Deakin University Postgraduate Association) by staff of the Faculty of Arts and an edited version is reproduced here with kind permission of DUSA (Deakin University Students Association).
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