All entries for Wednesday 02 September 2015

September 02, 2015

Managing notes for the literature review: general advice and some of my experiences so far

As has been mentioned in previous blog posts, the literature review is a serious piece of work that needs careful planning, arranging, thinking, considering and probably piles upon piles of written notes that have been stored in various places that you probably shall not remember when coming to writing your literature review! As with anything else, what you write will depend on your discipline and your research topic, but regardless it is important to have an effective management system where you can access your notes easily and efficiently, and arrange these notes in a way that does not interrupt your flow of thinking and writing when it comes to writing your literature review. Obviously, whatever extensive amount of notes you have you are not likely to have an extensive set of notes to complete the literature review because there shall always be something else to consider as you are writing. I find that when I am writing I have new ideas come to me that are worth exploring further: this is fine, it does not interrupt the flow of writing as I note down the ideas and explore at a later time when I come out of that mode of thinking and writing.

Regardless of the research topic and the discipline it’s likely that separate sets of literature shall be explored: with mine, philosophical, theoretical and empirical sets of literature are being explored, and each command a separate set of extensive notes. As I have indicated in an earlier blog post, I am following a Theory-Practice approach to the review therefore I shall be writing about philosophical and theoretical literature first, followed by empirical. This way, I can more easily be able to associate and compare empirical findings with philosophical and theoretical discussions and evidence the need of my research and reason the findings of problems in that way. Again, it depends on what you prefer to do: you might prefer to explore empirical findings first and then match findings with philosophical and theoretical literature, and that can be just as effective. Also, you wouldn’t have to necessarily construct your notes following a set pattern of philosophical and theoretical discussions to empirical findings: you can mix it all up as much as you want it just depends on what works for you! Just make sure that you keep a separate set of extensive notes for each set of literature and make sure you manage these notes effectively. Keep things simple, and keep things logical because when it comes to writing the literature review you want to make sure that you can access your notes easily and quickly and in that logical order so that you don’t have to go searching around and forgetting where you are.

As for my own management system, my extensive notes are kept in a display book that contains about twenty plastic wallets, with each wallet relating to a particular “theme” of a particular set of literature, beginning with philosophical themes moving to empirical themes. As an example, a philosophical “theme” could be the ideas of a Philosopher, or the ideas of several Philosophers that relate to a particular phenomenon. Another example could be that empirical findings could relate to the effectiveness of a teaching method upon a particular set of learners, or the way that a particular set of learners perceive a particular teaching method. Both of these are different empirical themes that can have their own separate places inside whatever management organisation you choose to have.

Simplicity of access and logical orderings are keys to developing a simple yet effective management system of these extensive notes. Remember, you don’t need a chaotic, complicated management system as there shall be enough chaos and disorders as you produce your first set of notes!

Current thoughts on the structure and layout of the literature review

As has been mentioned in a previous post, a literature review is not an annotated bibliography nor is it some set of unconnected narratives, neither is it a part of the thesis that can be written in a single setting: it is an evolving, ever developing chapter of a thesis that needs to be kept up to date, which shall evidence a couple of key characteristics: that you have gone to great lengths to prove the need of your work, and that as a researcher you have been able to keep up to date. Remember to take notes of the ways that you have been keeping up to date with the latest research papers and reflect on these methods. As with all thesis chapters it is likely to stretch to several thousand words, probably over ten, perhaps twenty, thousand words depending on your research topic and discipline. Given that my thesis is based on a Social Science discipline, I’m expecting the literature review to be between fifteen and twenty thousand words; however, it’s important to remember that quality should always come before quantity. It’s alright to aim for ten thousand, twenty thousand, or whatever words you want but they must be meaningful.

Either way, the literature review commands an order of reasoned and elaborated discussion that enables logical orderings of discussion and development of argumentation, so that reasoning can be easily tracked with efficiency and convenience throughout the literature review. Although this shall take time to achieve, what will assist from the beginning is thinking about the structure of the literature review because setting a structure will assist in documenting the general areas that the literature review, and ultimately the entire thesis, shall cover. Every researcher will structure their literature review differently, so what is going to be detailed next is based on my own ideas and preferences.

I like to discuss theory first; practice second. What is practice without theory? Indeed, what is theory without practice? In my opinion (and not every person shall agree with this: that’s fine) practice without theory or a certain Philosophy is a directionless venture without any real aims or objectives and no desire to progress or move society (or anything else) forward. A theory less practice simply becomes nothing more than a mechanistic, automatic process void of dynamism and unpredictability that makes theory led practices that bit more exciting. Theory without practice (or experimentation) however becomes stagnant and unmovable, and theoretical work must be able to be moveable either through experimenting with a theory to prove or disprove various aspects, or to generate a new theory. Theory feeds into practice, and practice provides feedback to particular theories; theory and practice are separate fields, but are interconnected.

I am currently structuring the literature review to reflect my mode of thinking about the relationship between theory and practice. I am structuring it so that I discuss the philosophical and theoretical aspects of the research areas first, which involves detailing and critiquing each relevant philosophical perspective and theory and interconnecting them, then following this moving into the area of empirical literature: the “practice” aspect of research literature, if you want to view it that way. When I move into the empirical literature I shall then connect the empirical findings with philosophical and theoretical discussions: this is the “feeding back” that I talked about earlier. Constructing the literature review at this point does not prove or disprove the actual correctness of existing theories: I would be merely identifying philosophical and theoretical areas that have been appropriately covered and therefore begin to evidence the need to explore areas that have not been appropriately covered or areas that have not been considered at all with the existing theories and discussions. Of course, the reverse could also be true: you could use philosophical and theoretical discussions to identify problems with empirical findings. Or, sometimes you would not have to refer to any empirical literature in this manner in order to find out problems with existing philosophical and theoretical discussions.

It really is limitless and it really depends on your project and the way you structure your literature review. You need to do what works for you and what words for the research within the context that you choose to set it. Just make sure that you provide sound reasoning and sound argumentation on why you have structured the literature review the way that you have done, and make sure that everything reads logically.

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