November 11, 2016

Considering The Literature, Part A: Set Of Considerations

As I have said in previous blog posts referring to literature reviews, a literature review is a serious piece of work probably in some theses the most important chapter as this directs the readers to what the research is about. It is best to leave the literature review, from my opinion, till after the research design has been fully decided upon because it is, usually, the research design that directs the structure and content of the literature review. Do, however, write extensive notes about each paper that is read even before beginning the first draft of the literature review.

Having selected the research design, the next step is to consider a series of issues regarding the way in which literature plays a part within the research. The main considerations are: the research design itself, the types of literature, the approach used to analyse and synthesise the literature, and the role and purpose of the literature. A number of blog posts referring to each consideration, and a combination of them, shall be written but in the meantime this blog post briefly introduces each of them.

The Research Design

I would say that this is the most important consideration: from my own experience no other issue should be considered until the research design has been decided because the research design, whether that’s quantitative, qualitative or mixed methods based, can determine the structure of the literature review, along with the purpose of the literature.

The Role and Purpose Of The Literature

This is the second most important consideration, in my opinion. The role of the literature I would say is strongly associated with the research design because different types of research design entail specific roles of literature. Writers have come to a general consensus as to the role of literature within quantitative research: it helps to develop and clarify research questions and hypothesis, for example, as well as develop a theoretical framework within which data is collected and analysed. The purpose of the literature within qualitative data is commonly observed as verifying and validating concepts and theories generating from qualitative data and acting as data itself in some cases, whilst mixed methods is not quite so clear but should be able to combine both general roles of literature. With mixed methods research there needs to be the best of both worlds, but the extent to which their roles are realised could be arguably based on the importance of each strand of a mixed methods research. For example, in mixed methods approaches where emphasis is placed on the quantitative strand should literature be used in the same way as pure quantitative approaches? If emphasis is placed more on the qualitative strand, should literature be used as a method of theory verification and validation, and as data? What if both quantitative and qualitative strands are considered as important as each other? What then? Perhaps in this case it is best to use both approaches to literature: the trick is figuring out exactly the way in which literature shall be used within each strand and the way in which literature or discussions of literature can be combined or integrated to form a complete narrative of findings and theory development.

Either way I think it can be suggested that a general role of literature is to contextualise the research. Contextualise as in to situate research within the broader picture or in other words to contextualise research is to ask where exactly does a research project fit within the wider picture of the research landscape of the field and phenomenon of interest.

The types of literature to be included

Once the research design has been decided upon and the role of the literature has roughly been figured out, the next task is to think about the types of literature that shall be used. This relatively straightforward compared to the research design and the role of literature: decide what types of literature to include, and the way in which each type of literature shall play a part in not just contextualising the research but to help build conceptualisations of data. Contextualising research and building conceptualisations of data are fairly independent processes in other words you can do both activities regardless of the type of literature that you have. This is what makes choosing the types of literature fairly straightforward, in my opinion.

There are various types of literature known broadly as empirical papers: quantitative literature (research carried out using quantitative assumptions and designs), qualitative literature (research carried out using qualitative assumptions and designs), and mixed methods literature (research carried out using both quantitative and qualitative assumptions and approaches). There is a plethora of other types: theoretical papers, where a writer develops and explains a theory or model; philosophical papers, which involves papers exploring ontological and epistemological issues; literature reviews, where sets of literature are analysed and synthesised to illuminate a point referring to a particular concept or set of concepts; and critical papers, where existing theories, models, philosophies, and so on, are evaluated and critiqued either from a theoretical or empirical perspective, or both. Regardless of the type or types chosen, it is important to remain clear why each particular type is important, why each particular type has been selected, the role of this type of literature, what each type of literature states, and in what way, if possible, it combines or integrates with other types of literature.

The approach used to analyse and synthesise the literature

This is a big topic as there are many ways in which literature could be analysed, but the approaches that are selected is determined by the types of literature selected because most if not all literature analysis and synthesis approaches are strongly associated with particular types of literature. Meta Analysis, for example, is strongly associated with analysing and synthesising quantitative based literature, whereas Meta Ethnography, for example, is strongly associated with analysing and synthesising qualitative literature. Mixed methods approaches are, you guessed it, strongly associated with analysing and synthesising a mixture of literature. Examples of this type include Narrative Summary and Thematic Analysis.

In summary: there is plenty to think about when considering the literature in the context of a research project. It is important to try to remember, perhaps, that it's impossible to decide on anything for sure until the research design has been selected. Really though, there are no right or wrong answers and there is no strict regimented path through this. You might think about a role of literature initially and as you go through your research you might find that this role is no longer relevant, or that you had perceived a particular role incorrectly. That's fine: the important thing is you address the situation, propose a new solution, apply the new solution, and try to record what happens. Make notes of everything: that way you can chart and track your progress. That's a reason this research blog exists!

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