Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Your Literature Review: Basic Steps

Dear Colleagues,

I'm working hard on the draft literature review chapter of my doctoral thesis, and pleased to say that I am finding it particularly difficult to shape my writing into a coherent body of knowledge.

A community of practice: Students of the MA ILTUS at Ruskin
College at their residential workshop in January .
Pictured here listening to Matt Hannam,
who completed the MA in June 2015, talk about his experience
of researching and writing his dissertation.
I say pleased because I don't think that someone who teaches others how to approach their own literature review, should be automatically assumed an expert. I am not.

I am as much a student of labour and trade union studies as the students of the MA ILTUS at Ruskin College. Indeed, I feel that I have learnt as much academically from academic engagement with trade union students as I have in-turn taught them.

I hope and trust that what we have managed to create at Ruskin is a community of practice which enables the joint sharing of experience and practice both academically in our experience as trade union and political/social activists.

Similarly, I should stress how valuable I am finding some of the core texts we provide to MA students as essential reading for this task including Chris Hart's Doing a Literature Review, Diane Ridley's The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students and the relevant chapters from Alan Bryman's Social Research Methods.

There is a mountainous volume of online material out there too (perhaps too much) but if I can give a plug for any source it would be that from the University of Leicester - partly because my colleague Carol Edwards has helped write some of the learning development resources for students. Here's the link on the literature review:
I am not going to re-state here the professional guidance of colleagues like Carol, Hart and Ridley etc., although I would state at its simplest that a good literature review will demonstrate your understanding and awareness of the key knowledge in your field of research, and where your research proposal is located within it.

I am writing this post, as usual, to get some thoughts out of my head, and into some basic, coherent form, that may prove useful to colleagues, and my so my novice notes on approaching your literature review are:

Be clear about what your literature review is for. Whether BA or MA, or other, you will no doubt be writing to meet a set of criteria - know these well. Is it, for example, a summary of the latest published material, or do you have to justify the selection of your research topic?

Have a very clear sense of where the literature review sits within the body of the document you are writing, whether dissertation, thesis or other. As Hart so brilliantly depicts in Writing Your MA Dissertation, does the review need to relate clearly with the methodology and findings chapters?

Start early in collating the material for your review. Use the resources identified above to identify techniques to search for relevant (and to identify the irrelevant) material. Be careful though, if you don't know yet, what the review is for, you won't know when to stop, or perhaps even start, your literature search.

Similarly, don't read without clear sense of purpose. Whilst you need to know what your review is , for, think hard and early on the best way to map your review and plan how you will start, review/edit and complete it.

I can't emphasise this last point enough. Even a simple literature review will present you with an opportunity to waste a considerable amount of time reading irrelevant material and that which looks relevant but isn't. Similarly, a good plan will help encourage you to stop (or at least slow down) how much you are reading, and encourage you to start writing. It really isn't until you see your own description/analysis of other's writing/research that you'll feel (all being well) that you are moving forward.

I shall leave my novice notes there but, if you want to see a good practice model, can I give a plug for a great piece of work by Jane Holgate of Leeds University Business School:
Completed in 2009, and then published in 2014 in Mobilizing against Inequality: Unions, Immigrant Workers, and the Crisis of Capitalism, this is not just an outstanding, valuable piece of research, it's helped me see my own for, and how best to map etc. So, if you want to start your literature reading, and your study is somehow linked to labour, trade unionism, migration etc., why not start here?

In Solidarity