In this series of blogs I want to chat about a few useful writing tools for the literature review that I have come across – both from my time as a student and also from my job as an academic researcher.


In this first blog, I want to start with a tool that helps us with a very important, and early, part of the literature review.


Theories and the Three C’s

The first, and perhaps best tool, that I’d like to discuss is the one that helps with an important early part of a literature review – the need for a review of the theories that could potentially guide the research that is being planned.


At this point, it might be useful to remind ourselves what we mean by theories, and why they get reviewed before the empirical research in the review of the literature.


At a very blunt level, a theory is just an idea, or set of ideas, about a certain subject.  For example, in education and psychology, we often hear mention of self-esteem.  But . . . what is self-esteem? As with many things in psychology, we are not totally sure what it is.  After all, self-esteem does not exist in the true form of the meaning “exist”.  That is, it does not exist in the same way that your appendix or heart exists.  This is why I often joke about the fact that surgeons and doctors have an easy job compared to that of teachers and psychologists.  At least they can actually see what an appendix or a heart looks like.  For us, we are dealing with important parts of the human condition that we “assume” exist – like self-esteem.  So, if we cannot actually see self-esteem, it really is not that surprising that we cannot agree definitely on what it is.  That is, self-esteem is a concept.


Quite often we hear of the term “concept” in relation to cars.  At the major car shows each year, vehicle manufacturers present not only the newer versions of their cars, but quite often include a prototype / concept, car – someting that they are working on that might either become a new product in its own right, or an influence on other cars that they might produce.


Another way of thinking about a concept / conceptualisation is in relation to fashion shows.  Whilst some of the designs are “pret a porter” (ready to wear), other designs are concepts, and may or may not become finished products, or influential in the design of other clothes.


So, when we think about concepts like self-esteem, it should not be surprising to find that different people (theorists) might think about them . . . and define them . . . differently.


For self-esteem, this is definitely true. Some theorists, like Rosenberg (1965), think of self-esteem as being just one thing – that is, that it is “uni-dimensional”.  For others, like Harter (1985), self-esteem is viewed as being a bit more complicated, being made-up of our own evaluations of how we think we are in relation to sub-components – like Behavioural Conduct, Self Appearance, Scholastic Attainment, etc.  So, for Harter, self-esteem is “multi-dimensional”.


We could ask: which of these theories is correct?  That’s the wrong question, and an easy trap to fall into.  Whilst we can see quite clearly how they might “compare” and “contrast” with each other, it is also possible that they might be able to “co-exist”.


If you re-read that last bit, you will see three important words that begin with the letter “C”.  This introduces the first tool.


This tool is called “the Three C’s'”.  From memory, I picked this one up from my time as a student with the Open University.  It might even have come from Andrew Northedge’s fantastic book called “The Good Study Guide” (the original version had a blue and yellow cover).


The Three C’s are:

– Compare;
– Contrast;
– Co-exist.


Many undergraduate students become comfortable with the first two of these through essay assignments like:


Compare and contrast any two of the following theories of childhood development: Freud’s psycho-sexual theory, Erikson’s psycho-social theory, and Piaget’s theory of cognitive development.


At undergraduate level, most good students can complete such an assignment, particularly at a descriptive (rather than critical) level.  However, what separates the good students in the 2:1 classification and those few who are in the 1:1 classification (i.e., first class honors) is the understanding of the third “C”.


When reading for such an assignment, it is easy to create a table that has two columns – one for points of similarity between the theories and one for points of difference.  Writing the essay is then straightforward, albeit in a fairly descriptive way.  To “lift” the essay, a really useful approach is to show that despite the points of similarity and difference / contrast, the theories can help us even further if we don’t view them as “either / or”, but that together they can “co-exist” and give us a richer and more deeper understanding of the issue / concept that the theories are trying to help us to understand.


At postgraduate level – especially at PhD level, this is a really fundamental skill.  Literature reviews at this level often mean that a few theories have to be explored so as to determine which is the best for the task at hand.  Indeed, it might even be that different parts of different theories are useful if joined together for the task at hand.


Myself and Prof. Stephen J. Minton published a paper a couple of years ago that shows how we can do this.  We reviewed two different theories of ecological development (Bronfenbrenner and Bildung) and explored how they could “co-exist” and be very useful for professional Guidance Counsellors to understand bully / victim problems.


So, considering that an important early part of the literature review is concerned with an analytical review of the theories that might be useful to guide the research, the Three C’s become a very easy, but useful, tool in your writing.


Up to this point, I have used self-esteem as an example of how two competing theories can be analysed using the Three C’s.


If your concept of concern involves more than two theoretical positions, you can still use the Three C’s.  Indeed, the real strength of this tool can be seen in reviews that have more than two theories to contend with.


For example, if you are interested in the concept of identity, then there are least three theories that will need to be reviewed if you are interested in identity issues in adolescents.  These are:


1. Erikson’s psycho-social theory of identity. Stage five of Erikson’s theory helps us to understand that a central quest for each adolescent is to find their own identity, perhaps shaking off the views and perspectives of their parents.  Thus, we can better understand the fickleness of adolescence, where there are periods of “storm and stress” and clanishness / cliques.  Through this period of the lifespan, the core task is to understand, and answer, the question of “Who am I”?  With this, we can better understand why adolescents always appear to be rebellious and changing “social group” quite often – e.g., being a punk rocker one day and a heavy metal fan the next day.


2. Tajfel famously considered that we see the world, and every issue of our sense of self, as being represented by our own perceived sense of being to an “ingroup”, as opposed to the “outgroup”.  This is a powerful sense of how we identify ourselves, with us psychologically viewing everyone else in this ingroup in a positive manner.  With this over-identification with those that we perceive as similar to us, we over-categorise those in the “outgroup” as having negative attributions.  So, for example, a football fan who supports Manchester United may view all Manchester United fans in a positive manner – even though they may never have met in person.  Similarly, fans of Liverpool are grouped together and ascribed less than positive characteristics.


3. Yet another view of identity has been advocated by “social constructionists”.  Whilst not readily identified as being the theory of only one person, proponents of this approach look seriously at tools that can be used to construct identity – such as language and power.  With this theoretical view, people and groups can change their identity, or at least their perceived identity by using social tools, such as language.  For example, Nelson Mandela was once considered to be a terrorist, but with the strength of language and disourse, the view changed – and the new view prevailed – that of statesman.  This was also evident in an Irish context when Martin McGuinness was attempting to become the new President of the country.  Similarly, groups can use such an approach to change how they are viewed by society.  A useful example here is that of black people in the US and the “black is beautiful” campaign.  Similar strategies and effects have been use by other groups that were once marginalised – e.g., persons with a disability.


So, here we have three different views of identity from a psychological perspective.  There are probably other psychological theories that could be included here.  And, there are still others if we were to include a sociological perspective.  However, for our task here, the three outlined above are suffice.


In our area of research, with a focus on identity development in adolescence, there are obvious strengths and weaknesses of each theory.  Without going into too much detail, we can see how they “compare” and “contrast” and “co-exist” with each other in these examples:


– bully / victim problems;

– transgender;

– experience of growing up in Northern Ireland.


This approach to thinking about, and analysing, theoretical perspectives is useful in any literature review – for example:


– intelligence (g, Gardner, Sternberg, etc.);

– personality (factor theories like Cattell, biological theories like Eysenck, five factor models like Costa and Mc Crea, etc.);

– bereavement (stage theories like Kubler-Ross, psychodynamic theories like Freud, etc.).


I hope that this blog has been useful to you.  All literature reviews need a good section about the topic of concern and how different theories help us to understand these “concepts” that we “assume” exist . . . unlike the “easy” work of doctors and surgeons who work with things that really do exist.  Our work in trying to understand the human condition and the issues that affect children, schools, families, and communities has great potential to help – feel confident in your research and your ability to work with theories.


Conor 🙂


Harter, S. (1985). Manual for The Self-Perception Profile for Children. Denver, CO: University of Denver.

Mc Guckin, C., & Minton, S. (2014). From theory to practice: Two ecosystemic approaches and their applications to understanding school bullying. Australian Journal of Guidance and Counselling, 24(1), 36-48. doi: 10.1017/jgc.2013.10 (ISSN: 1037-2911, EISSN: 1839-2520: Available at:

Rosenberg, M. (1965). Society and the adolescent self-Image. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Posted on 27th October, 2015. Copyright Conor Mc Guckin