MEd 3 – The role of the Literature Review and of Theory

I have always seen the literature review as the most exciting part of any research project. For me, it’s about discovering what is out there, bringing it together and building on it. The later is the most interesting part – you get to take things forward and bring in your own comments, critiques, questions and links on what is already out there. I have once again enjoyed reading Creswell (2003) and Newby (2011) this week. I think this post is highly reflective as it is based on the literature reviews I conducted for assignments, my dissertation and earlier research proposals. I have then focused my reflections from this weeks readings.

Literature use

Bringing focus and taking things forward
I think literature is valuable in helping to focus a project. Unless you are trying to back up or disprove something, why waste your energy doing something that has been done before? I like how Dr John Classen (2009) puts it in the youtube video shared in the pathway:

 You have to know where you are before you can go forward

I think that sums up the point of productive research. If you are not brining ‘something new to the table’ or at least a unique context or situation – then what is the point? The only way you can make sure this is by having a thorough background to the field you are researching and some understanding of how and why you are taking it forward.

Understanding the background and ‘how you got here’
I find a strong understanding of the literary background to what you are researching is important. It helps you understand the ‘current situation’. This could be literal history, context, events leading to the subject/event or even history of thought on a concept. Understanding what has happened before can help avoid potential pitfalls.

Developing your own ideas
On undertaking a literature review I relish coming across viewpoints, approaches, conclusions, methods, discussions and ideas that I disagree with. It has always helped me to not only develop my own ideas, but to cement my understanding. It is an excellent way to discover new ideas and angles. There have been times that a series of new journal articles have contributed so substantially to my understanding that I have changed my viewpoint and understanding on a topic.

Justify your decisions and research method
A literature review is an excellent way to help justify what you are doing. Among other things, a thorough review can demonstrate why you are brining two concepts or schools of thought together, can show how you are bridging a gap in understanding with your project or can simply apply previous thought to your own context. If there is substantial thought in one area it can demonstrate academic consensus which is useful if you are taking things on to the next step. For example, I have often found it is a good way of reviewing methods previous researchers have used and justifying my approach though showing what has/has not worked before.

Literature misuse

I think Newby’s comments on research misuse are interesting.

Ignorance: Ignorance involves leaving out or being unaware of relevant work. Sometimes (perhaps often) this is unintentionally and on reflection I have fallen into this category before. For my undergraduate dissertation I remember teasing out what I believed to be all the core papers and areas of thought. It was only three years later that I found another key development. In my defence this was due to the lack of subscription to relevant journals at my institution so I was unable to get access to those papers. This is a shame that paper would have helped corroborate some of my findings. In other situations though, you can imagine how this could really destroy someone’s foundation or conclusion.

Misunderstanding: Misunderstanding is just what it sounds like – not fully understanding something… I think it is most important to be aware of this potential when looking at papers, arguments and thoughts outside your disciplinary background, field or context. I have experienced this when I looked at some physics and chemistry behind decomposition as part of my undergraduate which was outside of my social research background. I found it important to look into further research and check my understanding t if I ever leave my field.

Selective referencing and misrepresentation: In one word – unethical. Selective referencing involves purposefully omitting some references.  This could be papers that disagree/dispute the author’s position. I find it particularly abhorrent as it is so against the academic ethos. We should be free to agree or disagree. Throughout a lot of topics there is a lot of controversy and disagreement. It is this that makes topics so rich and interesting! Misrepresentation involves twisting and misusing previous work to imply different findings, outcomes or process. It is incredibly unprofessional. I do however think Newby does not fully consider thow it can be linked to misunderstanding.

2 thoughts to “MEd 3 – The role of the Literature Review and of Theory”

  1. Really interesting post Lee, I found it really useful to help me in my understanding of the purposes of a literature review and the key pitfalls to avoid. Written at the right level for me, that’s the beauty of learning alongside others, and seeing their thinking through reflective posts. Thanks so much for this.

  2. Thanks Catherine, I am very glad it made sense. I was still a bit feverish when I wrote this one. I certainly felt this pressure with this post as I work at a library and count a team of librarians as colleagues. I too have found these reflective posts incredibly useful. I really appreciate the ability to see all these topics from all of our different angles and perspectives.


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