Crucial to an effective literature review is the process of setting up questions that will impose not only order on chaos, but also one’s own stamp and on vast amounts of stuff. Many other worthies have written incredibly helpful guides on doing literature reviews, including Pat Thomson and Literature Review HQ (signing up for access to the toolbox is worth it, by the way). I have also been reading through Chris Hart (1999) Doing a literature review: releasing the social science research imagination (London, Sage Publications). While this is an older book, there’s something about describing the literature review as involving imagination that really appeals to me. Fear and loathing appear to be common reactions to the literature review component of a thesis, and a lot of advice written for PhD students seeks to provide encouragement and strategies for turning the Kraken (or other immense, untameable beast) into a well-trained labrador (biddable and hardworking, even if likely to run off after a rabbit and eat too much if given a chance).
The ‘training manual’ approach to many of these handouts, including the great one produced by my uni’s postgraduate learning support service, still tends to leave an impression that the literature review is a required but rather dry and uninspiring task that one has to get through before getting to the interesting stuff of your research topic. It is easy to see how the feeling of ‘needing to demonstrate knowledge of the literature’ can get out of hand and become overwhelming. This can be even more so for those of us doing interdisciplinary work where there are several ‘bodies of literature’ with which to be familiar and include in the review. Hart still presents strategy and technique, but along with it this notion that the review is also an opportunity to exercise some creativity and imagination. To argue that the literature review is a creative exercise, he draws on C. Wright Mills’ The Sociological Imagination (1978),
“It is this imagination, of course, that sets off the social scientist from the mere technician.”
Now there’s a challenge. I certainly didn’t embark on this PhD to be a ‘mere technician’! I am inspired to think about how I can bring my imagination into the literature review process and enjoy doing it. Seeing as an opportunity to be inspired, enthused, infuriated and shape it with my own author-ity instead of seeing it as a chore that will dictate to me certainly puts a whole different spin on it. Words are powerful, after all.
So, here is my more light-hearted distillation of questions to guide a literature review –
- What is this shit?
- Who has written about this shit before?
- Does this shit make sense?
- Are they just making shit up? Or is this shit for real?
- What do I reckon about this shit?