May 24, 2016

Reflection on the Literature Review so far

The development of the literature review of the thesis is not likely to officially begin till after the upgrade process although this has not stopped me from continuously thinking about the concept of a literature review, its aims and purpose, its structure and layout, and the approach of synthesising and analysing the literature that is to be included. Despite all the other work that needs to be completed in the early stages of the Ph.D., there is argument to suggest that there are important considerations in the early stages of the Ph.D. that can and will influence the literature review at a later time. The following represents my own advice based on the experiences so far on the Ph.D.

Think about it early, and never stop thinking about it

Think about the literature review right at the beginning of the Ph.D even when you are developing your proposal as part of your Ph.D. application. Form draft initial thoughts about what you want to achieve with the literature review and think about what authors you might want to include. I began thinking about the literature review at the beginning through for example deciding upon some of the authors and concepts that I want to include in the review. This however is a continuous and ongoing process because the literature review itself is a continuous, ongoing, dynamic document. There is no room for absolutism in my opinion when constructing a literature review.

Concepts change, your own understanding changes, your research shall change, the context shall change, the methods and methodology might change, and therefore your selection of literature shall change, and this especially the selection of literature shall change constantly as your understanding matures. Embrace it, feel challenged, push yourself and never give up!

Think about it early, think about it before starting the Ph.D., never stop thinking about it, and when you have written the literature review treat it as a first draft and keep thinking about it.

Make sure you record every idea, thought, inspiration, anything that comes to your mind about the literature that you read, or what you experience or observe no matter if it’s small or insignificant. Remember: my own research began as a small near insignificant observation on a teaching course that no other person picked up even though it was right in front of them!

Do not subscribe to a particular method too soon

This is quite important from my experience. To briefly explain, there are various methods used to analyse and synthesis existing literature: meta synthesis, meta-analysis, meta ethnography, narrative synthesis, critical interpretive synthesis, and mixed methods synthesis, to name a few.

Around the middle to latter part of the first year I decided to develop a critical interpretive synthesis approach, but the problem at this time was I had not fully realised the research design. At this time (and as has been thoroughly discussed on this blog) I was planning on adopting a Grounded Theory research design and was going to integrate critical interpretive synthesis data with grounded theory data. However, when I realised the faults of the research design I changed from grounded theory to a mixed methods design and subsequently realised that the critical interpretive synthesis approach was no longer suitable because it generates a theory from the literature and not the research data. I need to rethink the approach that I am going to be using to analyse and synthesis the literature.

Decide what types of literature that is to be included

This is a key factor in deciding the approach that is chosen to analyse and synthesis literature. My literature review shall be complex containing both quantitative and qualitative literature, with each type consisting of different methods, tasks, contexts and Philosophical perspectives. I have selected this extensive set of literature because it suits the mixed methods research design: because data in my research shall be generated from both quantitative and qualitative approaches, it makes sense to analyse both quantitative and qualitative literature.

The analysis of the literature shall be within the context of different concepts that define the general phenomenon of investigation. Defining concepts and developing conceptual understanding shall assist with allocating and categorising literature and therefore make the process of literature management a little easier. My research so far consists of four or five concepts, but conceptual understanding of these concepts are continuously developing, which influences the way in which literature is categorised and also the need to select and evaluate further literature. I shall explain this in a later blog post.

Decide on your research design

This, in addition to deciding the types of literature to be included in the literature analysis and synthesis, is a key factor in deciding which method to use to analyse and synthesis the literature.

Particular research designs shall make particular approaches to analysing and synthesising the literature unusable. A pure quantitative research design might work well with a critical interpretive analysis approach because the purpose of the critical interpretive analysis is to generate a theory from the literature, which can then be tested using a quantitative research design. A critical interpretive analysis therefore would not be suitable for a grounded theory based research design because a theory should be generated from the literature and not from the research data.

It’s an ongoing document

A literature review is continuously developing right up to the point of the point of formally submitting the thesis. It would be completely pointless to write a literature review in the first year of the Ph.D. and then submit it as it is with the thesis submission (around a couple to several years later) and not include any further, latest research. This would be identified in the viva as a serious flaw as the post graduate researcher would have failed to keep with up to date developments in their field and would reduce the authenticity and uniqueness of the research.


The key point of this blog post is to emphasise the importance of thinking about the literature review as early as you can. Considerations include: type of literature to include, the approach to synthesising and analysing the literature, and the overall research methodology. Remember that the overall research design and the type of literature selected will influence the approach to literature synthesis and analysis.

It is a lot of work and should not be taken lightly!

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