Literature and inspiration

I am currently in the process of putting together a draft literature review as part of my PhD research. Initially this is intended for my primary supervisor, as some indication of whether I am progressing in a reasonable direction, and at a reasonable pace. Once it has achieved acceptable quality and quantity, the next step is to include it as part of my “first year report” (a.k.a “annual progress review” or “probationary review”), and, all being well, as part of my final dissertation. This may seem a lot of weight to be carrying at a point just a few months in to a potentially six-year part-time research project, but arguably there is no better time to get started than the present.

Since my previous post on literature searching I have upped my game, and now have several hundred potentially useful papers, journal articles and peer-reviewed conference proceedings and a rough idea of how I think I might structure the literature review. Just to make sure I am on the right track, however, I have also been reading up on the concepts and processes of literature reviews. This has left me in more or less equal amounts enlightened and confused. For example, I have been working my way through “Succeeding with your Literature Review – a handbook for students” by Paul Oliver (OUP, 2012)

This book, notwithstanding the claims of the back cover, has a definite bias toward literature reviews in the social sciences and humanities, with only a cursory nod toward harder science or engineering. However, there have been several times when reading this book has provided a minor epiphany. The first such was in illuminating ideas of how to structure a literature review, particularly in pointing out that, despite to the name, a “literature review” is not just a review of some literature, but a context and positioning statement for some research. Even more than that it can serve as a narrative which takes the reader on a journey from a broad map of existing knowledge to fertile ground for a specific research question.

The latest gem came today, as I read, perhaps for the third or fourth time, an exposition on methodology. Up to this point, the terminology and assumptions of an unfamiliar field had left me unsure whether this had any significance for me. Repeated mention of words such as autoethngraphy and epistemology left me cold. But finally the realisation crept up on me that discussion of methodology should indeed be a key part of my literature review and that, more significantly, I had done very little literature searching in that area and thus have hardly anything to cite or quote.

My research area is largely about comparing implementations (and the process of the creating and selecting such implementations) of software intended to serve a broadly similar purpose. Yet in my rush to find writing about this specific kind of software I have neglected to look for literature on software comparison in general. Without a theoretical grounding in academic practice in this kind of study, I run the distinct risk of wasting time and effort on ill-considered, flawed, or unusable research. My hope now is to be able to find sources to help me describe and reference existing methodological approaches to this kind of problem, and start to build a compelling argument for my intended methodology within my literature review.