Literature review or ‘contextual framework’?

Literature reviews are the one section of a PhD thesis, article or undergraduate assignment that strike fear into the hearts of even the most confident of students. Why are we so terrified of them? Reams of writing, many blogs and online advice pages, and hours of anxiety are devoted to literature reviews – the writing, reading, summarising, connecting, re-writing and re-reading that seem overwhelming at times. I am supervising a PhD student who is currently writing her literature review, and reading her 4th draft this week, a thought occurred to me: she isn’t writing a ‘review’ of the relevant literature; she is building, using the selected literature she has read as bricks and mortar, a contextual framework for her study. It seems to me that dropping the whole notion of a literature review and replacing it with a notion of creating a contextual framework, or rationale and foundation, for your study would offer you a few helpful insights into what you are actually trying to achieve with this part of your writing.

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

The first is organisation: to write a PhD thesis, a book, or even a very well researched journal article, you need to do a large amount of reading. You will read many books and papers that are useful and clearly connected to your research, and you will read others that are less useful and may need to be left out of the writing. If you are writing a literature review, the temptation is often to use this part of the thesis or paper almost as proof of how much work you have done, and therefore how credible you are as a scholar. It is tempting to find a way to bring in every study you have read, and every paper and book, laboriously summarising for the reader every argument, valid point and connection with other similar or different texts. What may well happen then is a sense, for your reader, of a lack of organisation. Rather than selecting and situating relevant texts you have read in relation to one another and your study, you are simply showing them how much reading you have done and what all of the reading says about all the topics that may be relevant to your research. So it is a kind of literature review, but not one that will help your reader find their way into the specific context for your study.

The second thing thinking about a contextual framework, rather than a literature review, could offer you is focus. Start with your specific study, and your research questions: what is this study about, in a couple of sentences? What main research question are you trying to answer? The research question will be refined as your study progresses, but you need to have a good sense of it earlier on to ensure that you keep your reading on track and relevant. What is the context you need to create for your readers, so that they understand a) what this research is about, b) why this research is so necessary or significant, and c) where or how what you propose to research will make a contribution to scholarship in your field of study (the gap you aim to fill)? By focusing on, and adapting for your study, these questions, you can better choose firstly to do the relevant or useful reading, and secondly choose the most relevant reading you have done to include in the framework, organising it to tell a more logical story about the research you are doing, how the questions emerged for you, and how what you are writing about will tie into or contribute to your field.

By thinking of this section of your study rather as a contextual framework, a structure that will provide a foundation for what will come next in terms of the conceptual/theoretical and methodological frameworks or sections, and the data analysis, findings and conclusions later on, you could avoid this literature review pitfall. This section of any thesis or paper will never be easy, I don’t think. For PhD students especially, working out what you actually think in relation to so many published voices who seem to have so much more authority and right to speak that you do can be scary, and overwhelming.

Often, I think, literature reviews that read as turgid lists of everything the student has read come from that place of being scared that they haven’t done enough, or read enough, and they so badly want to appear and be credible and authoritative. Part of becoming a doctor is learning to manage that fear, and find a way to focus your writing and research on what will make the clearest, most sensible and accessible argument for your readers. Thinking of creating a contextual framework – a holding structure for your thesis that will connect into your conceptual/theoretical and methodological frameworks to create a very clear foundation, set of tools and action plan for your thesis or paper, might be a way of doing just that. I’d love to hear from you if you feel this helps, or if you have found other ways to make literature review writing less scary and challenging.

A link between writing book reviews and writing your literature review

Last year I published two book reviews. In my country’s higher education system, I get no ‘brownie points’ for writing these, as they accrue no status or subsidy in terms of being ‘proper research’. I know, as a journal editor, that it is notoriously difficult for many journals to fill their book review sections, because producing good book reviews is time consuming, and in many research-incentive systems around the world, they don’t really count as being an activity that ‘pays you back’ as much as journal articles, book chapters or books do. Yet, I think they are a useful and important activity for postgraduate students to consider engaging in.

Firstly, you get a free book. Considering how little funding postgraduate students tend to have for research materials like expensive, pristine hard cover books, a free book is a very cool thing to get your hands on. If you choose to review titles that are connected to your research (and you really should not be doing otherwise), you will have free access to the latest research in your field, and you will be able to join a conversation through that review with the author, and others in the field.

Which brings me to my second reason why I think writing book reviews is a good PhD-related practice: you have an opportunity to make a small argument in relation to the book, and introduce yourself as a scholar in the field. Ideally, a book review is not a precis of the book you have just read. The worst kind of book review takes the reader chapter by chapter through the book, and tells them more or less what they can find by looking at the Table of Contents, and skimming the book themselves. The better book reviews, the ones that add a critical voice to the process of reviewing, identify the central argument of the book, locate that argument within the broader field, and consider the significance of what the author has said, who the book would be relevant for, and why.

Writing this kind of critical book review is a useful activity for scholars working on finding their own voice within the research conversation that want to join, which is a lengthy process that involves reading, commenting on and reviewing a small mountain of published research in your field of study. Learning how to write a critical book review would teach you how to better identify an argument made by an author, consider the ways in which they have convinced you of the veracity of the argument (or not), and what kind of contribution they have made to research in your field. You would have to locate your own point of view on the argument, and express this through the review, not seeking to criticise, but rather to critique, and offer readers of your review insight into why the research in the book matters. Thus, learning to write critical book reviews could really help you to develop a more critical literature review – one that goes beyond summarising and synthesising, comparing and contrasting, and rather shows your command of the selected research you have read and connected, and how it all relates to the study you are engaged in.

I certainly have found writing book reviews a useful exercise for honing my thinking, and for teaching myself to express my ideas more succinctly and clearly. Most journals prefer reviews that are no longer than about 800 words, so you need to learn to make your points directly, concisely and clearly so as to say everything you need to say about the book within the word limit. I have also found them helpful for teaching myself how to get to the point more directly: what is the main argument? Why is this a significant argument? What is the main evidence the authors uses to make this argument? Are there any areas that are fuzzy, underdeveloped or that point to further research? Who could benefit from reading this book? By following this basic set of questions, and making notes as a I read that I then develop into a draft that starts with the argument of the book, and where it fits into its field of scholarship. I can then refine the review to be as clear and concise as possible.

I believe all PhD and early postdoc scholars could benefit from writing book reviews – free books, ongoing opportunities to improve your ability to write succinctly and offer useful critique of texts in your field, and a way of getting your name and an idea or two you have out into the wider world as you work on the more ‘valuable’ publications, like those book chapters, articles and books.


Endnote: most journals have review editors. If you are keen to review a book, write to the review editor with your brief proposal of which book you’d like to review and why you think the journal would be a good home for the review – have a careful look at the aims and scope of the journal, and tailor your proposal accordingly. If they accept, they’ll give you a deadline and have the publisher send you the book. There are various versions of this, so make sure you find out exactly what the review requirements and deadlines are before you get reading and writing. Good luck!