For many this is where the PhD begins – with the Literature Review. In fact, the Literature Review itself is a process, one which can be broken down into 6 key stages during the course of your first year of research. A literature review for a PhD thesis is a critical and evaluative account of your topic, where you will be expected to synthesise, summarise and analyse the literature in your field. You will also be expected to identify any gaps or shortcomings in the literature and comment on existing knowledge. However, there is no definitive literature review model in the Humanities so it is up to you to decide on an appropriate model for your thesis.
The 6 stages of the process are as follows:
(1) The initial groundwork – like a PhD thesis, no literature review is the same and guidelines vary from discipline to discipline. Therefore, the first stage of the process should be to do some initial groundwork. This means actively seeking out appropriate examples from your discipline to see how they are organised and structured. Your supervisor(s) might be able to recommend some good models/examples for you. You might then find it useful to come up with a literature review plan which will help you manage the whole process.
(2) Problem formulation – after you have done some initial groundwork and analysed some relevant examples it is useful to think about how you are going to approach your own literature review. Although you will already have a research question (or thesis title!) it is helpful to turn this into a working statement which will form the basis for your literature review. This working statement can be in the form of a question (or questions) to be answered, an outline of your topic, a problem to be solved, etc. This will help you approach the literature from a critical perspective.
(3) The literature search – the major donkey work involved in any literature review is the literature search. This means meticulously searching through library catalogues, bibliographical software and various other sources to locate literature that is relevant to your topic. The John Rylands University Library can help you with some technical aspects of your literature search but it is always useful to come up with a strategy for this – to decide which material is useful. Useful things to consider when undertaking a literature search include listing all the keywords and concepts which you want to explore and also to think of the relationships between these keywords and concepts – this will allow you to do a more extensive search of the literature.
(4) Information management – once you have collected the literature you need to find a way to manage the information. This involves reading and note-taking effectively (see the Speed Reading post for more details). Remember to keep exact references in electronic format and also in hard copy and come up with a system to store and retrieve the information. SQ3R is a very good technique to improve your reading retention – Scan, Question, Read, Recall, Review. More about this technique can be found on the Mind Tools website (http://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newISS_02.htm). It might also be worthwhile learning how to use Mind/Concept Mapping which will help you to express your research visually. EndNote and Microsoft Word are also good tools to use to manage information – there are training modules on all of these things available each semester and please check the training calendar for more details.
(5) Analysis and interpretation – once you have collected your literature it is necessary to analyse and interpret the data. This means identifying the theories and the methods used, the methodological approaches, the contribution of each book/article, working out what the findings are, seeing how the arguments are shaped and defined and also how the author(s) use any definitions/keywords.
(6) The writing process – once you have collected, read and analysed the literature you are ready to start writing. Here you need to decide how to organise the information – chronological, theoretical, conceptual and thematic are just a few of the ways you might structure your literature review. When writing you need to make sure you can demonstrate your methodological knowledge and remember that this is a good opportunity to develop and strengthen your argument.
You might need to re-visit some of these stages at any point in your thesis. The literature review is a working document – i.e. it should be refined, re-written and added to throughout your thesis as and when is necessary. You will also need to make allowances for new contributions to the field.
For further reading on this topic I can recommend C. Hart’s ‘Searching and Reviewing the Literature’ in The Postgraduate’s Companion (SAGE, 2008). The Rylands University Library is organising a series of 5 information sessions, specifically tailored to those PGRs writing and developing their literature review. Please keep checking the training calendar for further details.