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The Literature Review as an

integral part of PhD Research

Desmond Thomas,
University of Essex 2011

The fundamental problems
• A ‘Literature Review’ can mean many
different things to many different people.
It is essential to clarify what are the
expectations of supervisors, examiners,
departments (sometimes more than
one) and whole research communities
• Literature Review: Product vs Process

The U.of Essex Requirement
• A thesis submitted by a candidate for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy must embody the results of
research carried out during the approved period of
study. In the thesis and examinations the candidate is
required to conduct and present original
investigations that make a significant contribution to
knowledge, to test ideas, whether the candidate's
own or those of others, to understand the relationship
of the theme of the investigations to a wider field of
knowledge and to express him/herself clearly and
concisely. (University of Essex Website)
What does this mean?
“to understand the relationship of the
theme of the investigations to a wider
field of knowledge”
1. To reveal current understanding of your
topic (Thody 2006)
2. To relate a study to the larger ongoing
dialogue in the literature about a topic
(Cresswell 2003)

Literature Review Aims (one view)

• Literature reviews are based on a

systemic reading of existing academic
writing on a particular topic … The aim
is to survey and report on a reasonably
large or complex field of work, in the
process developing some themes to
make the review distinctive
(Dunleavy 1986:112)
The Literature Review: Process

• Contextualizing a research topic

• Testing research questions & claims,
and examining counter-claims
• Exploring other relevant projects and
case studies
• Exploring the research methodology

The Literature Review: Product

Could take the form of ….

1. An introductory chapter, providing a
context for your research project
2. A separate designated chapter within
your PhD thesis
3. A composite of several chapters
4. Literature Review Sections to be
integrated within different chapters
The ‘Interim’ Literature Review
Can serve several purposes:
1. Evidence that the research is making
progress (as part of upgrading)
2. An opportunity to demonstrate the
quality of your academic writing
3. An opportunity to clarify your stance in
relation to other writers

A reminder: your presence is still required

• “In literature reviews the critical element most

frequently missing is an explicit angle or theme – a
sense of what the author wants to do differently or
what insights she hopes to gain from completing the
review.”(Dunleavy 1986 113-4)
• “It is important that you specify at the outset the
angle from which you propose to survey a literature.
This step needs to be taken long before you actually
start writing up a draft. Once identified, your
individual approach should inform the selection of
materials included throughout the
dissertation.”(Dunleavy 1986: 114)
Issue 1: Accessing Source Materials

• Library catalogues
• Electronic databases
• ‘Grey literature’ (theses, websites etc)
• E-books
• Conference proceedings
• Statistics
• Discussions
• Subject guides
• Google Scholar
• Endnote
Issue 2: Selecting texts

1. ‘Seminal’ text: the most important

2. Important text that merits detailed
reading and understanding
3. Useful text that contains more than one
interesting or relevant idea
4. ‘Single item’ text that contains one
useful fact, quotation, example etc.
5. Possible text that just might be useful
Issue 3: Leaving your tracks

• Recording references to the whole text

• Summarizing some/all of the ideas
• Highlighting interesting quotations
• Querying claims made in the text
• Comparing the text to others
• Writing and filing analytical notes
• Preparing summaries of analytical notes
Issue 4: Setting yourself goals so
that you don’t get lost in the literature
• Week 4: Research plan agreed with
• By end of term 1: Oral presentation of work
• By end of term 1: Submit a 5-10000 word
review of the relevant literature

What if you fail to achieve your goals?

Goals, schedules & routines quiz
1. When are you at your most productive: 8am, 3pm,
9pm, 2am? Or does it vary?
2. Which days of the week are dedicated to the PhD?
3. How many months of the year will be mainly
dedicated to PhD work and which will not?
4. How much writing would you expect to produce in a
day dedicated to writing: 250, 500, 1000 words?
5. Where do you prefer to read/write?

Managing a research project 2010 14

Issue 5: Time Management

• A monthly plan: helps you to allocate

tasks to a particular period
• A weekly schedule: helps establish a
productive routine for reading & writing
• Both of these will help you – and also
help your supervisor to help you

Cresswell’s Literature Review Steps

• Identifying key words for searches

• Locating suitable texts
• Selecting according to the abstract or
by skimming. (Record your decision!)
• Draw a ‘literature map’
• Summaries of relevant articles
What is missing in this account?
Literature Review Map 1

Literature Review Map 2

Literature Review Map 3

From LR map to LR chapter structure

1. Introduce the LR and explain its

structure. Explain also how you will
relate it to your research questions
2. Organize the chapter according to
important themes or issues related to
research aims, questions or claims
3. Add a concluding section in which you
pull all the different themes together
1. What type of LR do you need for your
PhD thesis?
2. Do you need to write an interim LR?
3. What steps will you follow to assemble
the relevant literature?
4. How will you record your reading?
5. How will you integrate your notes?
For Next Class ….
• Which key concepts do you need to
explore as part of your Literature
• Familiar concepts: Culture, democracy,
social identity, human rights
• More technical concepts: fungibility
• Are these concepts contested?