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.

commons.wikimedia.org

commons.wikimedia.org

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!

From chaos to coherence: logic, linearity and lies in thesis construction

I have written before on this blog about how a doctorate is assembled in chunks and pieces, and comes to together slowly, and (in my case) in fits and starts. It is not a linear, clean, neat process – generally the ideas and brainwaves ebb and flow, and we take two steps forward, three back and five sideways as we muddle through the complexities of managing a research project as daunting and significant as a doctorate is. It is chaos – sometimes organised and manageable, sometimes not. It’s kind of thrilling, a lot terrifying, and pretty exhausting.

Image from userexperience.co.nz

Image from userexperience.co.nz

It would be nice, wouldn’t it, if we could reflect some or much of that chaos and two-side-stepping in the final thesis? It would certainly, as a friend of mine suggested to me this week, feel more honest in terms of reflecting the process of messy discovery and diversions and muddling-through that is the PhD process (for many scholars, anyway). As you write your thesis in these chunks and pieces, you are probably writing in the present or future tense, for example. I will be doing this, and I hope I might find that… . But when you write the introduction (often right at the end, after the conclusion, when you’ve finally pinned down what your thesis is about) you write in the past tense – ‘This is what I thought, so this is what I did, and this is what my conclusions will point to… . It is, as my friend stated quite plainly, all lies.

Researching and writing a doctorate is messy, but presenting and crafting a final thesis draft for examiners cannot be; the final product of all your messy, meandering labours has to be linear, logical, coherent and all in the past tense. Your examiners and readers are coming to what you have written after the fact, not as it is happening inside your own head, and they don’t really need to see all the mess. What you have to show them is a neat, linear story that is coherent and sensible, and takes them carefully through each step of your research. Basically you are following (especially in the social sciences) a fairly standard plotline, even if the form your story takes varies across disciplines, faculties and higher education systems.

Once upon a time people thought that… But I thought that maybe… So what I did was… and what I found was… and this will change the way we think about*… .

(Fill in the … with a few sentences describing your project – very handy tool for plotting out a paper or longer writing project, and for crafting an abstract)

The way you work that story out will vary hugely depending on may factors, like the quality of the supervision you receive, your own confidence as a researcher, time and resources, what research has already been published that you can access, and so on. As you discover, for example, what the field is that you are scoping in your literature review, you may read yourself around in circles, working out who the chiefs and tribespeople are, and what they are saying to one another and how it all relates to your thesis. But, when you write this section, you need not to be thinking about this chaos; you need to be thinking about how you are helping your readers understand what they need to know in order to believe that your research questions are plausible and valid, so that they will see exactly why your research does fill a gap and is necessary and important. You write it with this logic of demonstration in mind, rather than with the logic of discovery you employed when reading, selecting, and situating all that literature in relation to your own research questions.

But, as my friend pointed out rather amusingly, this feels like lies – this linear, coherent, polished narrative you craft, create, edit and mangle into being for your readers feels very far from the messy, meandering chaos that lurks behind the scenes of many PhDs – and some take longer to find their way to that final product than others. Creating coherence out of the chaos is a kind of conceit, but it is a necessary one.

Writing and the thinking behind it can be a bit messy and mad, but reading really can’t be because we read what others have written to help us sharpen, expand, clarify and prompt our own thinking (and often writing, too). The writing we produce and send out into the world for readers to engage with must be as clear and coherent as possible, so that the contributions we are making to scholarship in our respective fields will not be lost amongst the chaos. Our ideas (and we must believe this) are valuable, and they need to be read, debated, hopefully agreed with.

PhD story

Click image to enlarge

Ultimately, a linear, coherent and clean story created out of a messy research process can feel like a kind of lie, but it is a necessary lie given the point of all of that research: to share our ideas and to make a valued contribution to the scholarship in our fields of study.

*I learned this in a writing workshop with Prof Lucia Thesen, from the University of Cape Town, in 2011.

Finding what you need to read: Is it really elementary, my dear Sherlock?

One of the most unpleasant surprises, getting into writing papers based on or even largely out of my thesis, has been how much reading I still have to be doing, in spite of having done a great deal already for the actual PhD. I feel I should not be as surprised as I have been: what else is research about but reading, writing, thinking, doing, more reading, more writing, more thinking, more doing, and so on? Another surprise was also how much I still have to learn about doing useful and productive literature searches. The Thesis Whisperer has written a very helpful post about literature searching; I’m adding here to these kinds of posts with some of the tricks I am learning to master to turn myself into a literature searching ninja.

There are a couple of reasons why there is still a fair bit of reading to do when you start writing papers out of or directly based on your PhD thesis. The first is that we cannot copy and paste papers from a PhD thesis. There is a significant difference between the thesis kind of argument, and an article kind of argument. I have heard people tell fantastical tales of just ‘turning my three chapters into three papers’; now, perhaps I am just not going about it the right way, but I can’t work out how to do this and end up with three good articles I want other people to read. I am finding, with the kind of ‘big book’ monograph-type thesis I wrote, that I need to recraft parts of my larger argument into smaller, article-length arguments, largely by asking myself: ‘What is the significance or use of these findings, and who are they significant or useful to?’ Starting there, I have found my way to possible papers, all using data I generated in my PhD research, but all making arguments I kind of made in the thesis, but that were really more sub-claims or sub-arguments to the main overall argument I made. So, in order to make these smaller, sub-arguments well I now need to read a little more into research territory I have covered more broadly in the thesis, fine-tuning my reading and thinking.

This is where I use trick one (hardly new, but worth mentioning again): a ‘detective work’ search using reference lists from papers that are really spot on as clues to new searches. I recently read a fantastic new paper by a UK colleague to understand an issue I have been very fuzzy on in my writing. In it he references two further articles I then tracked down via Google Scholar and my library database. They were both incredibly helpful, and their respective reference lists have led me to further, fine-tuning reading. You do have to be a bit careful not to get endlessly lost in this detective work – there is a lot out there to potentially read on just about every subject you can think of, especially in the social sciences. Keeping your aim in the reading and searching in mind – ‘I need to map the field on issue X’, or ‘I need to understand better the connection, in my writing, between X and Y’ – can help to keep you from falling into a reading Alice in Wonderland type-rabbit hole that takes you in all sorts of new and fantastic directions that may (or may not) help your writing along. Using reference lists ‘forensically’ is a great way to join the conversation, and fine-tune your own reading.

A second reason that you are not done reading the literature in order to write PhD-based papers is that your field may have shifted and changed between the thesis reading and writing, and the paper writing. In my case, I am working with theory and conceptual frameworks that are fairly new, and there was less written about the conceptual stuff itself, and about the ways in which it has been used in research, when I was mapping this field during my PhD. Since I completed my thesis, a great deal of research drawing on the same kinds of methodological and theoretical frameworks has been published, and I need to delve into this literature in order to reference the relevant work in my own writing, and to keep abreast of developments so that I don’t repeat other research in what could be seen as plagiaristic or derivative ways. I’d like to add to the field in useful and hopefully new ways, not copy what has already been written about.

This is where I use trick two: finding out where the research in my field is mainly published and signing up for alerts or new issues of journals. In my field, there really are only about 8 major journals (at the moment) where the most relevant and useful research in relation to my own is currently being published. Of course there are many more, but these are what I would regard, based on my prior reading and searching, as peripheral journals because they either publish studies that are not necessarily relevant to my research, or because they publish this relevant research fairly infrequently. Not only does creating a ‘centre and periphery’ journal list, and then signing up for alerts or mailing lists on the ‘centre list’ help me to see when new research is published and what to be reading next, it also helps me to work out where I should be trying to publish my own articles. Most journal publishers, like Springer and Taylor & Francis, for example, have mailing lists you can join. Seeing the new research in your field as it is published can help you thus: you’ll be reading the latest research in your field; you can select articles to look up, download and read more strategically (less time going round and round on Google Scholar); you can see where this research is being published, which can lead you to the journals directly and to useful articles in their back issues perhaps; and you can work out which networks to publish in and which journals to seek out for your own writing.

Being your own Sherlock Holmes when it comes to creative literature searching, finding the right kinds of things to read, and knowing when to continue, stop or shift tacks, is an ongoing process part and parcel of being a scholar. I’m learning, as Inger Mewburn says in the post referenced above, that it is not all ‘elementary’ and these skills and practices can be taught, learned and honed over time. Making a note of what has helped other scholars, as well as your own detective tricks, can really help to turn your forays into online and library searches into more exciting and productive ventures.

Building a theoretical framework for your study

I am presenting a seminar tomorrow to PhD students on how I developed my PhD’s theoretical framework. When I agreed to do this workshop last year, I thought this would be fairly easy to do. However, I am finding it difficult to articulate the differences between substantive theory and what I think of as ‘framework theory’, and how to use both in different ways to contextualise your study and build a framework for it. This was, for me, the first and biggest ‘threshold’ (to use Meyer and Land’s term) that I crossed in my own PhD, and it’s a very important one.

There are two main places you tend to use theory in a social sciences PhD (I’d be really interested to hear about the differences between these and PhDs in the natural sciences): in your literature review where you contextualise your study and the rationale for it, and in your theoryology, as I call it, which works at a more ‘meta’ level to discuss how you understand the questions you are researching, how you plan to approach the research, and how you will move from theory to methodology and methods, and on to analysis. You come back to the theory in your conclusion, connecting it to your findings, but it needs to be laid out ahead of this in the earlier chapters.

I have written about writing a literature review, and using the research in the field in a more substantive way to build the context and rationale for your own study, and situate it within your field, so I won’t focus too much on that in this post. Here, I would rather focus on the more difficult-to-articulate issue: the theoretical framework. The reading PhD students almost always start with is the substantive ‘theory’ and research. You need to know what research has been done in your field, what the key issues and questions are, where the field is heading, and where you, coming into that field, can place your own research. But you may well find, if you spend long enough reading the substantive theory and research, that you start going in circles, confirming what you have already found out and slowly getting stuck. This is when you need to take a break. If you know what the lie of the land is, and you have a grasp of the trends, issues and research problems that are being or have been researched, and where the gaps you, you now need to find your question, your project. You should find the topic you want to research, and the focus, from your substantive reading, but you need to hone this to turn it into a lightning rod for all the other research and reading you will do to cling to. In my (albeit limited) experience, moving on to the ‘meta’ stuff at this point helped me to do this.

What do I mean by ‘meta’ stuff? The Free Dictionary defines metatheory as ‘a formal system that describes the structure of some other system, and ‘a theory devised to analyse theoretical systems’. Slightly obscure definitions on their own – theories that can analyse theories sounds like more going round in circles. But I’m going to concentrate on the words ‘formal system’, ‘structure’, and ‘analyse’ because this, for me, is what a theoryology hinges on. What comes after you  have focused on one research question your study can explore and answer? You need to design a methodology, and then use appropriate research methods to generate data, and then employ an analytical framework to organise that data. Thereafter, you need tools of analysis to make sense of the data in relation to the theoretical structure you have put together, and the field in which your research is located. All of this is nigh on impossible to do in any coherent, structured and organised way without an organising structure that can hold the project in place and on course. You need, then, a formal system, a structure, that can inform the methods you use, your data generation plans and strategies, and the ways in which you then organise and analyse the data to answer your research question. This formal system is your theoretical or conceptual framework (your theoryology).

But how do you build one? What kind of theory is theoryology-worthy? Theory is a weird word here, and it is often misused. I am sure I misuse it all the time. Often, when we say ‘theory’ we mean ‘other research that has been done in the field that informs how I think about my own research and/or practice’. By metatheory is meant something that, while derived from empirical research and data, is raised a bit further above the empirical to create a more generalised or abstract set of principles that can be applied as a formal organising or structural system in a range of studies. Theoretical frameworks are built out of this kind of theory. You need an abstract, generalised set of principles that you can adapt and apply to your own study, and that will inform what data you choose to generate, and how you then can organise that data and decide on methods of analysis. A helpful way of finding your way to this kind of theory that might be right for your study is to look at what kinds of frameworks or conceptual tools other researchers are using in your field or allied fields.

Finding a framework for your study is essential in the social sciences, certainly. Without an overarching metatheory to organise and analyse your project you may end up generating a mountain of data that you just get lost in because you’re not sure what is important or what is not; you may end up with the wrong kinds of data; or you may write a ‘findings’ chapter that describes rather than analyses the data in relation to the field itself, and the question your are answering, which would leave you in a precarious position, given the pressure on PhDs to make new contributions to knowledge. Don’t be too worried if this process of developing your own framework takes time (I spent most of my second year on mine). In my experience, if you have a solid framework that is chosen well and clear to you, what follows is generally more organised and less fraught on the whole*.

*Of course, all sorts of things can and do go wrong in a PhD, and this is just my experience, but colleagues who have followed this route have found similarly that the data generation and analysis process has been less stressful if they have a clearer sense of what they are looking for, why, and how to look at it.