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Reviewing the Literature Room

Reviewing the literature is a major part of any research process. It is important for many reasons, including finding the basis for your research, checking the current knowledge and thinking in your subject area and demonstrating that you can find, read and synthesise a range of literature in your subject domain. As you create your literature review, you will also be building your skills in literature sourcing, retrieval and management. These include effective reading, synthesis, rationale-building, organisation and writing. As you study the constellations in this room, keep referring to the think map on the left. This will help you to see the relevance of a particular constellation to the overall picture.


Literature mapping

Waterman Butterfly Projection, an innovative projection that shows the relative sizes of the continents more accurately than more traditional projections

Mapping is a very useful graphical technique that helps you to visualise connections and relative relationships between things. In the case of literature, these associations are between literatures, and mapping can help to identify issues such as proximity and connections in terms of ideas and findings. Once you have analysed a paper using critical techniques, you need to decide how it fits in with other literature that you have already analysed. You can achieve this by literature mapping, which involves broadly identifying the key concepts across the literature and how each paper or piece of material fits into this overall conceptual map.

For an example of what is meant by literature mapping, take a look at this online mapping utility. It asks you to type in the name of an author (N.B. this example concentrates upon authors of novels and popular works rather than research), and then produces a map of authors who write in the same or similar style and who are popular with the same readers. This is a particularly useful example of how mapping can utilise the geographical aspect of distance; the nearer authors are together, the closer their association in terms of genre or style.

Create your own literature map

You should start by answering these questions in relation to your reading:

  1. Write down the major themes from the literature which have relevance for your piece of research.
  2. Write down any areas of consensus between different authors.
  3. Write down any areas of dispute or disagreement between particular authors.
  4. State if there are any special reasons which might account for the different views held by different authors. For example, have they conducted their research at different times or using different techniques?
  5. Note the implications which both the cases of consensus and the disagreements have for your own research if applicable.
  6. Every time you read new literature ask yourself: where does this paper fit in and does it alter any of my answers to the previous 5 questions?

Every time you read a new piece of literature for your literature review, make any necessary changes to your map. For example, either add the literature to the relevant area of your map or create a new conceptual area if necessary. How you visualise and create your map is entirely personal. However, literature reviewing is a dynamic and cumulative exercise and there are always new sources and new angles to consider.

An example literature map

Here is an example literature map that is probably much more simple than the one that you will create. Note that the literature has been numbered for clarity purposes. If you are adding details of your literature to bibliographic software then it is possible that the material will be numbered automatically as you enter it (always keep the same number for any given piece of literature). It is advisable to keep your map as simple as possible: its purpose is to identify key concepts and how your literature fits into these concepts.

A literature map is a really useful tool for dividing your writing into chapters or sections. Once you have reached a satisfactory stage with your literature map, you might like to consider showing it to your supervisor and asking for feedback. Additionally, it is easier to manage your writing if you break it down into smaller parts such as approaching each of the concepts you have identified using your literature map individually, perhaps in separate chapters, before pulling all of the information together.

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