For many people, their first experience of writing a review of the literature(s) is when they are starting a dissertation or thesis for their course of study.
I have written elsewhere in blogs about various parts of producing successful literature reviews.
This post is about figuring out if your review “works” – that is, it should be working hard for you in your attempt to convince the reader that these particular bits of the literature to be reviewed – and that the research questions / hypotheses that emanate from it really do need to be explored. All too often I get to read literature reviews that do not “work” – merely being there because this is the literature that the author read and was interested in – with no real rationale as to why this literature was selected . . . and no real link to the subsequent methodology section / chapter or the results later on.
These are the main things to remember about why you are producing a review of the literature:
1. The literature that is reviewed, and analysed, results in well grounded research questions / hypotheses that need to be explored so as to clear-up / add to the knowledge that we have thus far. In a way, you are saying the following to the reader at the end of the review:
Dear reader, in the area that we are interested in, this review of the salient literature is the greatest and best review of the literature in the world . . . to date . . . and to advance our knowledge, these are the most appropriate research questions / hypotheses to explore.
2. These research questions / hypotheses then link forward to the methodology section / chapter and the chosen “methods” (e.g., quantitative like surveys or qualitative like interviews) that are most appropriate to collect the type of data that can help answer these research questions / hypotheses;
3. The results gained from the use of these methods are, quite obviously, tightly aligned to the research questions / hypotheses that the well crafted review of the literature deemed important to explore;
4. The discussion section / chapter then becomes almost like an updated version of the review of the literature. Like previously, you are saying something like the following to the reader:
Dear reader, I previously told you that the review of the literature was the greatest and best in the world to date. Well, not anymore. Why? Because since that was completed, one more study has been completed – mine . . . and now it is important that the review of the literature be updated to incorporate the results from my research. So, I’m now going to interpret my results in relation to each of the sections / points that were raised in the review of the literature.
Doing this becomes easy because each of the sections / points reviewed led to useful research questions / hypotheses that were picked up by the methodology section and appropriate methods were employed to gather the data that could usefully help to answer the research questions / hypotheses.
Here are a few useful things that will help you to ensure that the review of the literature “works:
1. Print an advanced draft of your review.
2. Get a pen and a ruler. Rule a margin down the right hand side of each page – probably about two widths of the ruler.
3. Read the first sub-section of the review and see if you can answer each of these questions positively:
– Has the section been “topped and tailed”? That is, does it have an introduction and a conclusion?
– Does the introduction inform the reader what the section is about, why this section needs to be there, what the critical issue / argument / debate is, what main references will be explored, and what are you trying to reach an answer about?
– Is the conclusion of the section explicit and directive? That is, does the review of the literature and exploration of the issue / argument / debate allow you to help the reader “see” why the section was important and allow you to help them understand the “answer” … and what this means for your research?
For example, let’s pretend that your review section is about definitions of bully / victim problems. In the introduction of the section, you might have something like this:
The present section reviews the literature regarding the most appropriate definition of bully / victim problems. As will be evident, the literature highlights that no single definition has attained universal acceptance. For example, whilst some definitions are detailed regarding expected behaviours, others are not as well defined. Also evident will be the argument as to the time-reference period within which specified behaviours must occur (e.g., previous week, previous three months, previous year). Reviewed will be the salient literature that concerns these debates (e.g., Jones, 2013; Smith, 2015). Exploration of the literature will enable a determination to be made regarding the most appropriate definition to be adopted for the current research.
The conclusion to the section uses this introductory text, except that it is now in past-tense, and with an “answer” for the reader. It might be something like this:
Reviewed in the present section was the literature regarding the most appropriate definition of bully / victim problems. As was evident, the literature highlighted that no single definition has attained universal acceptance. For example, it was demonstrated that whilst some definitions are detailed regarding expected behaviours, others are not as well defined. Also evident was the ongoing debate as to the length of time that would be most appropriate (e.g., previous week, previous three months, previous year). Exploration of these issues demonstrated that the most appropriate definition for the focus of the current research was that provided by Jones (2013) and widely supported by applied researchers.
Good luck . . . and remember to read the blogs about other aspects of writing the review of the literature etc.
Posted on 25th October, 2015. Copyright Conor Mc Guckin