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Some ideas for focusing your literature review
Dr Jens Hansen, Melanie Wong & Jo Perry
Dr Jens Hansen, Jo Perry and Melanie Wong have each contributed to the development of this resource.  Each of them are involved with the School of Education at the Manukau Institute of Technology 
By Dr Jens Hansen, Melanie Wong & Jo Perry
Published on 09/21/2010

Following the letter uploaded as written by Jo Perry to students about ethics, a group of us have collaborated to produce to a very brief learning guide that can, we hope, help beginning scholars/researchers to zero in on the specifics of assembling specifically selected literature for examination and review.  Assembling carefully targeted material is, after all, a necessary predicate to being able to critique those items of literature you've selected for perusal.  

In this short guide, we have, in effect, introduced the idea of using (some) Boolean operators.  We've done this by crafting simple directions for beginners so they might learn how to begin to focus their examination of relevant literature effectively instead of canvassing material blindly, widely and wildly.  To access the three page learning guide we've developed, either click here or click on the heading above but do finish reading this first.

As a matter of interest, we've noticed over the years that many people seem to launch unthinkingly into the preparation of a literature review simply because they believe they have to!  After all, nearly all journal articles, theses, books, and even reports which students and researchers examine seem to traverse literature.  And if that's the case, then surely it follows that the novice researcher/writer should also tell everyone about the literature - right?  Wrong actually.

What ought to happen is that a strategy should be developed for gathering relevant materials that relate to a focused or clearly defined topic.  There really ought to be a point to a written commentary on literature and equally, there really should be a point to any research being undertaken.  If there's an absence of focus, the novice is quite likely to splash about helplessly, gripped by strong currents of uncertainty.  

You see, what happens (far too frequently) is that novices (and those who haven't really planned their strategies) dive enthusiastically into an expansive ocean of literature.  They more often than not do so without thinking (first) about where they will leap. The result is that they drown in it all! 

They end up with so much material that they flail about pointlessly and tragically, they have practically no idea about what to do with their information overload.  Certainly, they seem unable to determine which direction they should paddle towards in order to reach a considered conclusion!  But they do not have to drown in a sea of mainly irrelevant and often worthless information.  They can slip on a life-jacket and survive.

So here is that life-jacket.  You can save yourself from drowning in readings if you simply remember that all literature reviews really must have a very specific and clearly determined purpose.  Put another way - anyone about to craft a literature review (complete with critique) should be able to answer this question: 

What is it that you (the writer of the literature review) want your reader to understand as a result of having read your work; what is it that you want to tell them and what do you positively, totally and absolutely need them to understand?

It's really as easy as that.  Put another way: 

Working out the core purpose, the central intention, the absolute reason of the literature review together with the message/s you absolutely want to convey to your reader is an important first step for ensuring you keep afloat in a vast sea of words, bewildering ideas and arguments.  You need to work out these things because if you don't, the material you work with will provide you, the novice, with multiple opportunities to become terribly confused and sadly despondent.  By contrast, if you do take the time to work out your core mission and message, we're very certain that you'll be able to set out confidently, swimming in any direction you wish, in order to surf your chosen knowledge wave.  

Enough of these metaphors!  

The point that we want to stress is that in order to work out what you want your literature review to convey to your readers, you will first need to have worked out what it is that your research is intended to be about.  Put very simply, this means that if you work out what your research is about, you'll more easily be able to determine the focus of your literature searches, reviews and critique.  (Reviews and critiques are different, by the way, but they do overlap!)  At the same time, we're quite sure that if you do complete your work with literature thoroughly, critically and engagingly, you'll clarify your research goals far beyond those aims you thought of at the outset of your endeavours.

We need to tell you that what we've prepared is exploratory at this stage - it's a work in progress - another letter to beginning students and novice researchers through which we try to guide them towards focusing their literature scavenging and processing more pointedly.  Because it's a work in progress, an evolving word-canvas, we welcome your feedback.  So keep your comments coming in folks.  

We also suggest also that you have a look at the materials produced some years ago by Drs Hansen and Smith (see Scholarship Resources in the Free Resources box or click here to go to that resource as a PDF with slides and notes or here to access the slides alone as a PDF ).  More than 20,000 individual hits have been made to that resource alone so there's got to be something good going on!

Focus well with happy reading and insightful thinking.

Dr Jens J. Hansen,
Melanie Wong,
Anna Jo Perry