The literature review is the thesis component which gives you the most scope to demonstrate your mad skills of scholarly warfare. Being able to write a killer literature review is important because it ‘sells’ your academic competence to examiners and other readers.

The literature review receives a lot of attention in the¬†how-to-do-a-PhD books. The key point they all make is that the lit review must be more than a list of things you read – it has to have an argument and a point of view. There’s no shortage of good advice out there, such as this excellent list of ‘literature moves’ out of my favourite book on PhD writing, ‘Helping doctoral students to write’:

1) sketch out the nature of the field relevant to the inquiry – including history if relevant and
2) identity major debates and define terms, in order to
3) establish which studies, ideas and/or methods are most pertinent to your study, and
4) locate gaps in the field, in order to
5) create a warrant for the study in question, and
6) identify the contribution the study might make

But there’s a gap between this kind of style advice and the actual mechanics of analysing and organising the raw material of your literature review. I’m talking about getting to grips with all those journal articles people. You have rather a lot of them don’t you? How are you going to ‘identity major debates’ and decide which are the ‘right’ studies to draw on in all that mess?

As I see it, there’s two basic techniques for developing a literature review from a given set of references. You must work at forming critical judgment on the literature by reading it, at the same time as you work on finding ‘patterns’ in the mess of information. It’s important to realise that these patterns are not ‘real’ – you make them by sorting and presenting the information in particular ways. This sorting process makes the raw information legible so that you can start to write an argument from it.

This is more than a filing problem. If you are anything like me you have a massive pile of journal articles on your desk. The neat freaks amongst you will have them all printed out and filed in alphabetized binders. Some of the more technical minded amongst you will probably be using something like Mendeley or even – ahem – Endnote . These tools help you find stuff when you want it, but they don’t do the intellectual heavy lifting for you.

There’s many different techniques you can use to massage meaning out of your information mess, but there’s only room here for one. It comes from the seminal book ‘Information Anxiety’ by Richard Saul Wurzman. Yes, you heard right – Wurzman is the creator of the TED talks. Good pedigree yes?

Wurzman argues that there only 5 ways to organise information, which he calls LATCH:

Location
Alphabet
Time
Category
Hierarchy

These organising principles can be used to perform simple operations on the material you have. Here’s some ideas:

1) Location

All scholars are ‘located’ somehow. Sometimes geography matters – think of the famous ‘Chicago school’ in social science. But we can think about location in more abstract ways – such as a ‘location’ of a scholar within a discipline. Some scholars will be ‘fringe’ and others will be ‘main actors’; some people will be ‘theoretical’ and others will be ‘practical’; some people will care about history, others will not – and so on.

Make a table in word and arrange the authors according to different ‘locations’. This is a good way of choosing which authors you can use to illustrate the dimensions of each debate. It’s easy to compare and contrast their ideas with each other because you have identified oppositions.

2) Alphabet

Of course alphabet is essential to organising your bibliography! I can’t think of another good use for alphabetical in a literature review, so I’ll pass over this one for my favourite:

3) Time

So simple – yet so genius. Take all the references and lie them on the floor in order of their publishing date from left to right (or whichever way your culture prefers to do it). Skim read them all again in order – what do you notice?

Fashions will have come and gone; ideas will have grown and died. This is a really good way of interrogating underlying assumptions in a body of literature and how they have developed. Indeed you may discover that ‘facts’ presented by subsequent authors are merely ‘ideas’ which have grown pretensions by being repeated by subsequent authors, who haven’t done due diligence like you have.

4) Category

I call this the ‘colour by numbers’ technique and use it often as a quick and dirty method of squeezing sense out of the literature. Basically you can develop categories about almost any idea or theme you read about. A good way to come up with themes is to visualise them in a spider diagram. Once you have identified the categories they can act as subheadings in your literature chapter. Simply make a list of which authors fit in which categories; don’t worry if some of them occupy multiple categories – they will just need mention them more than once!

5) Hierarchy

I find this organisational principle is really a ‘meta’ device – a way of criticising information you have already sorted using one of the other methods, particularly the category method. You make a hierarchy by exerting critical judgment on each of your categories: is one school of thought or way of doing things described in the literature superior to the others? Is one idea more practical and useful than another idea – or more theoretically interesting and elegant? Why? If you have organised your information according to location and identified oppositions, you can use hierarchies to identify which side you are on in the various debates. As you write, you weave in the critical stance you have developed – but that’s a topic for another time.

So that’s a grab bag of techniques to tame your literature dragon – at the very least they give you something to do when you are stuck!

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