Revisting the literature

Having recently completed the writing of my thesis I wanted to return to reflect on the purpose of the literature review in the PhD thesis. Probably like most PhD students I began with a rough idea of the type of study I wanted to conduct with vague aims and questions. These were based on my existing knowledge and experience as a nurse and academic. In the initially stages of the PhD process I understood an extensive review of the literature around my topic area in order to identify the gaps in knowledge and lead to the refining or the research aim and questions. So my initial review did just that, it helped me define the aim for my study and refine my research questions and inform the underpinning theory of the study. It also informed the development of the topic guide for the focus group I conducted with MS nurses, as well as the interview guide I used to loosely inform my semi-structured interviews with the participants -people with MS and their support person.

The purpose of the initial literature review is quite clear; it identified the gaps in knowledge and understanding and allowed me to, progress to data collection. I recall my supervisors at the time advising me that the thesis had to have a “golden thread” running through it in order for it to present a coherent story. I admit I wasn’t confident at this stage what the golden thread was going to be but biographical disruption was the focus for the study so it seemed likely this would be it. I worried that my data might not highlight the golden thread, what if my participants did not have any disruption to their former self? Or would my thinking and seeking this out introduce bias to the study.

Using an interpretative phenomenological approach allowed me to consider my perspective and own it; appreciating how it influenced the study and how that enriched the interpretative process, whilst acknowledging that it was my own interpretation. I needn’t have worried about the data though. There was ample evidence to weave the golden thread through the data, however once the data were analysed and I had written my discussion, I developed a conceptual framework from the data. Now I had a problem, my initial literature review no longer quite sat well with the rest of the thesis. This meant a re-drafting of the literature review or substantive re-write.

Pat Thomson’s reminds us in her blog about the purposes of literature reviews. So now was the time to re-review the literature, this time with the whole thesis in mind, and that “golden thread”. At this point I’ll let you know that I didn’t enjoy doing the first review, so the prospect of a reviewing it in a short timescale wasn’t entirely welcome but I could see the need and had the drive to make it work.

The previous work did not go to waste much of it has been kept but reworked. There were the additional literatures from the discussion chapter also to consider. In my discipline the literature in the discussion should also reflect what is in the review chapter.

I re-ran my literature searches and updated my evidence tables. This time I had made the move to using Mendeley which is a referencing management system which is cloud based and free. Its value in helping to short circuit the laborious process of compiling the literatures was invaluable. I was able to search the articles from my search that I had saved in Mendeley in the themes of the review. Then very quickly and easily use flip charts with coloured pens to code and organise the literature so when it came to writing I could simply writ the review with the relevant literatures referred so feeling confident I had not missed a paper left in my office or elsewhere.

This time, knowing the findings felt more confident in approaching the review as I could construct the story of my thesis, and clearly identify the gaps my thesis intended to address. I was also more confident about the role the theory has played in my research so felt better informed to critique the relevant theories justifying why I had adopted a particular theoretical lens.

So re-visiting the literature has been a valuable experience. My literature review now clearly relates to my study and highlights why the research was needed. So the message from this blog, if you haven’t got it yet, it that the literature plays an important part in the development of your thesis and serves different purposes at different times. It also helps you grow as a researcher.

What is your experience? Have you tamed your literature yet, scared any ghosts or are you still gazing through misty lenses, looking for clarity?