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.