Some thoughts on a literature review in progress

I spent the last weekend before handing in my draft (yipppee!) writing my ‘literature review’. I am using the ‘bunny ears’ because I am not sure that what I am calling a literature review in my thesis would be considered by many as a review of the literature in the more traditional sense in which this writing convention is used. Allow me to explain.

When I started my PhD in 2010, the Vice-Chancellor of the university gave a talk to the group of PhD scholars I was part of, and he said something along the lines of ‘I hope you’re not all going to write “literature reviews” in your dissertations’ in the context of a talk about what PhD research is or could be about and how we could write about it. What I think he meant by this was what Pat Thomson meant when she wrote a recent blogpost on literature reviews and being wary of writing ‘lists’. These literature reviews tend to be boring to write and boring to read, and also don’t really show the writer/researcher/scholar taking a position in relation to the chosen literature, using it to support that position. These ‘list-like’ literature reviews are more like summary and synthesis exercises, where you say what this author said and then what that one said to agree with him, and what these authors add to that, and then what these other authors say that builds on the conversation etc etc. They do show how much you have read, and probably that you have comprehended what you have read, but that tends to be all they can show your reader or examiner. You are not there – and you need to be.

My understanding of my own literature review has been different. My literature review, such as it is, is contained within the introductory chapter and framed as the rationale for the study. It locates my research within the wider field of related research. It’s not a whole chapter on its own, it’s not 25 pages long, and it’s not really called a literature review. I have built a case for my own study by showing my readers what research is already out there, where the gaps are and how my study fits into one of these gaps in particular. This is, I think, what literature reviews in dissertations are supposed to do. I am there – my voice is the one the reader can hear because although this section of the thesis is full of references and citations, I am using the ideas and words and research of others to build my own case. It’s a work in progress because I may have a lot I still need to unpack or make clear, but the ultimate aims of this section will not change very much from this draft to the last one.

I realise that there are many ways to write a ‘literature review’ but whether you have a fairly short one like my 12 or so pages, or a couple of chapters’ worth because that is what your study calls for. I don’t think the length is the thing that you need to worry about. I think the thing to aim for is to make your own voice and your own argument/study clear and front and centre, and use the literature you have read to show the reader where the work you are doing fits into the field, and why it is important, and how it speaks to the literature. You need to show that you not only understand the literature, but that you understand what all the other research means in relation to your own research. This is often why the list, if you have one, can be a starting point, but never an end point. You also need to be selective, and select the right literature to tell your reader about – who are the big names in your field? What is the cutting edge or most relevant research out there? Don’t leave these authors or this research out. But don’t just lump it all in indiscriminately – show that you understand that some research and authors are more important than others, and tell your readers why this is so in relation to the project you have undertaken. And in all this you must keep in mind your own voice, the voice of the researcher in charge of the whole research project.

There is a thinking tool that helped me through this part of my thesis; a metaphor my supervisor shared during a writing retreat earlier this year that helped me to visualise my way through the reading and writing of my own literature review sections. The literature review is like a dinner party. You are the host, and you have selected the guests to attend. You have a plan for the party, and good reasons for inviting these guests and not others. If you write the review like a list without any sense of positioning these guests in relation to yourself as the host and your reasons for having the party in the first place, you will be drowned out, largely silent or fighting to get a word in here or there. If you can direct and channel the conversation, inviting your guests to speak with one another and with you on certain topics and themes that are of interest, you will be the one hosting the party and your voice will be clear. Aim to be the host, the centre of your party, rather than sulking at the table or in the kitchen making the next course while the party goes on without you. It’s not necessarily a metaphor that can capture the complexity of the whole process of writing this part of the thesis, but I found it a useful starting point. What are your metaphors for writing?

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