Doing literature work

This post comes from some work I am doing with research students currently.

I want to start by acknowledging that you do not need to have a separate ‘literature review’ chapter in a thesis. While most do, this is not a requirement. Instead, what is required is a demonstration of disciplinary embeddedness. The simplest way to demonstrate this disciplinary embeddedness is a literature review that shows you have read both widely, but more importantly, deeply, in your chosen discipline.

There are other creative and innovative ways of using the literatures in your discipline to demonstrate this embeddedness, but this is a challenge that not all are willing to take on – but it is an option. In short, what I am arguing is that there is no one way to engage with the literatures.

That being said, what I am going to do is focus on the ways in which you can build a quality literature review chapter that demonstrates to an examiner – or any reader for that matter – that you have a grasp of the discipline.

A common approach adopted by apprentice researchers is what I would label as editorialising dressed up as a literature review. This is where a researcher selects and engages (to varying degrees) with literatures that support a priori assumptions about what is important. Even if done well, this approach often results in a narrow engagement with the literatures and in doing so misses one of, if not the key aspect, of demonstrating disciplinary embeddedness, locating the work.

In the social sciences, more so than in the natural sciences, research traditions matter. In many disciplinary spaces, for example the area in which I work – educational leadership, management and administration – there is a well recognised lack of inter-tradition engagement. The work of the literature review is to locate the research in a tradition and this can only be done in relation to other traditions.

Below I outline an approach presented by Karen Locke and Karen Golden-Biddle  in a pivotal paper in The Academy of Management Journal concerned with positioning one’s work to make a contribution to the discipline. For me, if adopting the traditional approach of a separate literature review, this approach allows for a meaningful engagement with the literatures of the discipline and providing a generative foundation for research.

An initial task in working with the literatures of a discipline is to establish your stance on the ‘coherence’ of the literature. This selection of literatures is both shaped by, and shaping of, your question generation. It is also central to locating your work within a research tradition. In the case of educational leadership, Helen Gunter provides a summary of the major research traditions and Martin Thrupp and Richard Willmott  do interesting conceptual work around the nature of literatures in the field. For the most part – although such artificial partitioning is rarely useful, but in this case serves a specific pedagogical purpose – your work with the literature falls into one of three categories:

Synthesise coherence: In this case, you are bringing previously unrelated work together to highlight points of agreement in order to demonstrate the need for further investigate. In many cases this is about identifying ‘gaps’ in the literature. This is a common approach.

Progressive coherence: This approach, particularly common in the natural sciences, the literature is depicted through the cumulative knowledge in the field and your work is the next logical step in this growth of knowledge.

Non-coherence: In what is arguably the most challenging and complex approach, you identify points of disagreement within a research programme whose importance is commonly accepted. This means locating your work within a contested disciplinary space and the explicit purpose of your work is to contribute to ongoing debates.

The degree of coherence is only one part of working with the literature. Having established a position on coherence, the next task (although to imply a distinct temporal ordering is problematic) is to problematise the literature as a body of work. The literature can be problematized in many ways, but three common means are – and somewhat aligned with the previous coherence categories:

Incomplete: As it stands, the corpus is not yet fully finished and your work is explicitly designed to ‘fill a gap’.

Inadequate: Alternative ways of doing and being have been excluded and your work either maps the terrain with a novel approach, or more significantly, extends and improves on what is already in existence.

Incommensurate: In this case, your argument is built on the premise that not only is existing work incomplete, but it is either wrong or misguided in some way. Your work seeks to overthrow existing views or paradigms in the discipline and to posit an alternative. To avoid being purely descriptive, potential things to consider are: historical evolutions in the pattern of ideas; conceptual threads (issues, questions, themes), theoretical and methodological issues; disciplinary perspectives; and the positions of different groups.

As noted above, there is no ‘one right method’ in working with the literature. That being said, I hope that what I have provided in this short presentation provides you with something productive in beginning to think through your approach to engaging with the literature.

A printable text version of this entry can be found on my page by clicking here.

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