All entries for Sunday 03 May 2020

May 03, 2020

Progress on the Literature Review

If you asked me even a year ago what the most challenging chapter of a thesis is to write, I would have probably said the Discussions Chapter. Why? Because the discussion chapter is a very complex chapter depending on the nature of your research, and how you approach the writing of your discussions chapter. Because my research adopts an inductive, data driven approach, how I approach the writing of my discussions chapter would be different to those that adopted a deductive, theoretically driven approach. Having changed direction with the approach to writing the thesis, the literature review chapter is the most challenging, at least if not on a par with the discussions chapter.

Every time I have completed a draft of the chapter, or any thesis chapter, I always kept in the back of my mind the changeable nature of any chapter. The literature review is no exception as it is an ever evolving and ever changing document, with changes possible at both the structural (meaning the logic and ordering of the content and the logical ‘blocks’ of ideas) and content (changes to conceptions meaning changes to the literature that needs reviewing) levels.

Although my literature review chapter has experienced changes at both levels, a consistent aspect of the chapter is the decision not to cover all aspects of relevant literature. Because my research is qualitative and inductive in nature that leads to the development of a set of themes and an understanding of certain patterns of behaviour, the literature that should be covered is that which that simply contextualises your research and that which you can use to justify the need of your research. There is much debate in the research methodology literature about this, but in my thesis I am discussing the findings of literature that most closely relate to my own findings in the discussions chapter in order to help validate my themes and observed patterns.

Switch to the Narrative approach

This deserves a series of blog posts in its own right, seriously! No kidding! I can relate this sort of approach philosophically to the likes of existentialism, hermeneutics, etc. I will come back to this though. In the meantime it suffices to say here that a major change to my literature review chapter, and indeed the whole thesis, in recent months is the change in the approach to writing the thesis from traditional to narrative. I am continuously developing my craft at narrative writing and I know very well that I can always improve and continue to find opportunities where I can improve.

First of all, what do I mean by traditional? The traditional format goes something like this: introduction, literature review, research design, findings, discussions and then conclusions. As for the narrative approach, at the moment my narrative thesis organisation is something like this: introduction, first literature review chapter, initial research design iteration, second literature review chapter, second research design iteration, third research design iteration, current research design iteration, findings, discussions, and conclusions.

As can be imagined, the most essential characteristic of narrative writing is that it charts, illuminates or illustrates the iterative changes to conceptions of data (which leads to broadening the literature and understanding of new concepts), as well as changes to research directions for example your research design.

In relation to the literature review, the narrative approach involves you writing the review in a way that charts the changes and broadening of your understanding over time as a result of a back-and-forth iterative process between engaging with your data and engaging with the literature. Major additions or changes to my understanding are represented across two literature review chapters, and more ‘minor’ additions to my knowledge or some sort of change to my conceptions are included in each chapter. This really documents how I learnt, when I learnt, and the broad connections between different ‘sets’ of knowledge.

Essence Of A Narrative Literature Review

Using a narrative approach is challenging and I’ve only used this on a chapter so far, but the idea of narrative writing is to afford a space where broader and specific links between thesis chapters can be identified. These broad and specific links between narratively written chapters should represent the broad timeline of your thinking. It is of course impossible to include absolutely every change, but you can develop a broad outline of the changes that have happened and present it in a coherent logical way but I can discuss this more another time.

The essence of a literature review is changeability. Some people feel bad if they have to rewrite their literature review as they have arrived either with or at the idea that their literature review must be correct or reflect exact relevance to the research in the first sitting. This is not the case! Remember that learning is progressive and changeable, and if it is not then this process is artificial and suppressed. Remember that if you are to rewrite your literature review this does not have to mean a complete rejection of your previous writing. Nothing is ever wasted, because when you rewrite your literature review chapter or any thesis chapter, you are not starting again from scratch but starting from the basis of wisdom and understanding. You are progressing all the time and allowing yourself to question what is really going on and if whether any thesis chapter represents what you really want to say. This is good!

But for those who are just starting: don’t panic and depending on the nature of your research don’t expect to be able to get it completed in your first writing session of it. It will more than likely take numerous attempts to get it right, particularly if your conceptions and explorations of the literature changes over time. This cannot be fully predicted initially, nothing can be fully predicted initially, but pay attention to your data and interpretations of this data. Enjoy the process, because this is your chance to engage critically and reflectively with previous literature and, if applicable in the review, to show how your research is different. This is also, as I have found, a basis upon which you can engage with philosophical and methodological discussions either in the review, or in future chapters.

I shall be writing more about this topic, and indeed on the topic of narrative thesis writing, in the future!

Keep going!

‘till next time!

An Encouragement For Post Graduates (and anybody else who this post can relate to)

Society is indeed going through unprecedented times with Universities, colleges, schools, workplaces, etc. closed en masse. It is a timely reminder of the times I used to read some sociological books and chapters that refer to society and culture not as some static entity that never changes, but as an ever changing entity, continuously shaped and moulded by patterns of human behaviour and technological advances.

Doctoral research as a part of our society and culture is also changing. Doctoral research by its very nature is a changeable construct that shifts and alters according to cultural needs and requirements, but also affording the time and space to question what goes on around us, to ponder alternatives, and to wonder at the value of these reasonable alternatives.

It is important to remember that each Ph.D. project is different in terms of aims, objectives, research questions, research context and environment, research design, and intended outcomes. And even where there are similarities between Ph.D. projects, each Ph.D. candidate is located within different social, culture, environmental and family environments. Each Ph.D candidate will have different worries and concerns at this time in relation to their Ph.D. and beyond their Ph.D. such as their families, friends, their homes, and their children.

Because of the vastness of variables and the equally vast possible states expressed by these variables, the impact of the lock down situation will vary greatly upon the research that is being carried out by Ph.D. candidates.

For example, researchers who are conducting research through interview based techniques are having to transition towards technological platforms in order to conduct their interviews. Those who were planning observation based research or a study of the lived experiences of others are again having to transition to online environments, and adopt and adapt online ethnographic methods.

These changes bring about implications to and challenges of research design and research ethics, but can also afford opportunities to engage critically and reflectively with new processes, to explore and question how similar research has been carried out previously, and to even contribute to relevant philosophical and technical discussions of research design, of research ethics, and of the use of online research methods. For example, you could write research papers or a chapter in your thesis that focus on critically comparing and contrasting face to face and online approaches to any ethnographic approaches you have used. You could ask the following questions:

What differences or similarities have you observed?

What logistical challenges and opportunities did you encounter and had to engage with?

How did you overcome any challenges and took advantage of any opportunities?

How has any changes to your context impacted how you analyse, conceive, or interpret your data?

It is very challenging times for many, but this can also be such an exciting opportunity for us to really intellectually engage with what, how, and why we can perform as researchers, to think deeply about who we are as researchers, and to think more about the challenges, constraints, opportunities and possibilities of technologies within our respective fields now and in a post-pandemic society. Yes we have had ‘post pandemic’ societies before, that which occurred after the Bubonic Plague, but this is the first time we can engage with such a society that has experienced many technological advances over the past hundred years or so.

Will technology become more normalised in the new post pandemic society?

How can we as researchers engage with this?

How will this alter our thinking about who we are?

How will this alter what we think and perceive of technology?

How can technology contribute towards or inhibit our society, our culture, our education system and our research?

What about patterns of human behaviour in response to technology?

These are important questions that will no doubt be engaged with over the coming months and years.

Where and when you can, I encourage you to engage creatively, critically, analytically and reflectively upon the new context that you find yourselves in. Personally, my research is not too badly affected, as my research has always been based on purely online means. But even then, I can use this opportunity to think even more about online research methods and about how online research can be of a benefit when we’re in such a pandemic. This is no doubt a challenging time to our philosophies, but we can get through it, and from it, our research can be positioned in a much stronger situation.

Remember why you are doing what you are doing. Remember your value, and don’t let the situation discourage you. Yes doing a Doctorate is tough. It’s a challenge at the best of times, but you are here for a reason. You are doing what you are doing for a reason, and that reason can only be realised and explainable by you. Keep going, believe in yourself, believe in your work, believe in your worth, and never give up!

‘till next time!

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