The Thesis Literature Review

This blog post was inspired by going through a presentation (36 slides) by Dr Judy Maxwell (2013) from RMIT, Australia, entitled Styling and Structuring the Literature Review.

Purpose of a literature review

The purpose of the literature review is to understand the current body of knowledge, what is missing from the body of knowledge, and how your study adds to it. The literature review also provides a theoretical underpinning to the research. It can answer the questions: What do I understand about this topic? What is the case for my research? These central questions can be supplemented by the following questions:

  • What are the definitions in this topic? Are they contested?
  • What is the history of this topic?
  • What have been the major issues and debates?
  • What are the key ideas, theories and concepts?
  • How is knowledge in this topic organised?
  • Who are the key players and what are the key texts?

A literature review does not need to contain all the associated literature. You need to select the most useful and relevant research for your specific topic area and to highlight the major issues.

Writing work as identity work

Writing a literature review involves developing your stance towards the literature. It becomes part of your identity. ‘Identity’ is complex and constantly evolving. It includes your socio-cultural background and your scholarly background.

Finding your voice

Think about the literature review using the metaphor of hosting a dinner party. You have chosen the (limited) number of guests, some guests are more familiar than others, everyone will have ideas to explore and issues to debate, but you are the host. It is about finding or adding your voice to the literature. You need to be clear about where you stand in the field of your work:

  • Make your ideas and arguments central
  • Frame discussion as a debate
  • Create a story relevant to your study by showing the different positions in the field

Structuring a literature review

Situate your research within a general context in the literature by defining and identifying the general topic or issue. Generally, the review will look at gaps in the literature, trends, themes and areas of dissent or controversy. Although the literature is typically one or two chapters in a thesis, the literature will be used throughout your thesis, particularly: in providing a rationale for the study in the introduction, in justifying your methodology, and in linking your discussion back to past research. Two possible structures:

A) Funnel structure

  • Introduce the problem and context
  • Highlight the development of major concepts, influential studies etc
    • Focus on areas of agreement, modification of design, tensions, inadequacies
    • Narrow the focus to studies closest to your own
  • Identify the gap where your research fits
  • Sum up and link to your research

B) Thematic structure

  • Introduce the problem and context
  • 1st theme
    • Focus on areas of agreement, tensions and inadequacies, narrowing the focus to studies closest to your own
  • 2nd theme
    • Focus on areas of agreement, tensions and inadequacies, narrowing the focus to studies closest to your own
  • 3rd theme
    • etc.
  • Identify the gap where your research fits
  • Sum up and link to your research

As final points, remember to summarise the major contributions, point out inconsistencies and gaps, and relate to your research question or problem.

Reference

Maxwell, J (2013). Styling and Structuring the Literature Review. Available: http://mams.rmit.edu.au/hbulkdc7tm9i.pdf

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