The next step is to determine how much we already know about the constructs, variables, concepts, and relationships identified in the theoretical or conceptual framework and the research questions. The typical format for this discussion is a literature review. The literature review outlines, discusses, and analyzes the existing research findings.
Joining an Existing Conversation
Have you ever been on a project or problem-solving team that was performing well when all of a sudden a new member was added to the team? What happened to the performance of the team? My experiences are pretty consistent – the team went back to the storming phase of team development. According to Tuckman, teams mature through four main phases of performance – forming, norming, storming, and performing (Gutknecht and Miller, 1986). These are natural stages but when a new member is added, the team is often thrown back to the forming stage. Why is this so common? One explanation is that the new member doesn’t have the same knowledge and understanding of the problem, project, and where the team has been.
When a researcher decides to conduct research to contribute to the body of knowledge they are joining a dialogue that is already in progress. This ongoing dialogue is documented in the research-based (peer-reviewed) scholarly journals, dissertations, and research reports. To avoid causing storming in the ongoing discussion, a potential contributor to the discussion first needs to come “up to speed” on the current state of the discussion. This is accomplished through a thorough literature review which is documented in a comprehensive annotated bibliography.
Summary of What We Know
The literature review is a thorough discussion of the key contributions to the topic body of knowledge. In order to be comprehensive without being large enough to be a book, the literature review is compressed. The best way to be concise and comprehensive is to follow a few guidelines. Avoid direct quotations except in very rare and powerful situations. Why? They take up too much space and they represent only one contribution. The alternative is to analyze many contributions and develop a synthesis of the many contributors and then list all the sources that agree or were contributors to the knowledge. Good journal articles do this. Why list more than one source for a specific point? So, we know how much research support there is for that point. The bottom line – the literature review needs to present an integrated synthesis discussion vs. simply a collection of pieces, parts, and contributors.
The literature review ideally includes both recent contributions and classic or foundational contributions. The majority of the literature review should be recent contributions (last five years or so) to ensure that you are up to date on the most current state of the discussion and can determine the next “sentence” that needs to be added to move the dialogue along. In addition, the lit review also needs to include key classic contributions to make sure that you are building on the main findings of the theoretical basis of the topic. One technique that many researchers use is to find some key current articles and then follow their trail by going to the articles in their reference list. In doctoral level discussions, we do not rely on other’s interpretations of previous work. Instead, we go to the original source in order to draw our own conclusions and confirm or deny (critically review) their conclusions. You will occasionally find a mistake!
A solid lit review presents all viewpoints and findings objectively. In other words, it is not a position paper but rather an objective and critical review of all the key findings and contributions to that topic found in the research. This critical review results in not only the findings from the literature but also a description of the strengths and limitations of the findings. Don’t be timid – you are expected to point out the limitations or your critical assessment of all sources including those that are famous! This is critical to a credible study. Finally, the lit review should take the discussion to the next level and set the stage for the research. It does this by drawing conclusions from the discussion that clearly establish the basis for the research questions and if appropriate the hypotheses.
One BIG mistake that many researchers make is to start writing the lit review before they are ready. Before you start to write “pretty” paragraphs, there are at least two steps to complete. First, develop an annotated bibliography and second develop a detailed outline including main points and supporting references. These two activities provide a solid research base and a logical organization. I have found that there are five steps to developing a literature review:
- Create an outline of the lit review and let your mentor (dissertation chair) review it as you start to collect and analyze the literature. I often use a mind map to help explore the key concepts, variables, and relationships.
- Dig deep into the “peer-reviewed” literature for each concept, variable, and relationship and create an annotated bibliography.
- Then you can use tables (I use excel for this) to create matrices in order to analyze the various findings.
- Then you can develop a more detailed outline based on the analysis of the matrices.
- Then and only then will you be ready to write “pretty” paragraphs.
If you send your committee chair each component as you complete it, your chair can give you feedback along the way. In other words, build quality in with in-process checks vs. inspecting quality in at the end. Of course, don’t wait for the feedback to get going on to the next step.
Based on the literature review determine the current level of empirical knowledge on the topic. The level of knowledge will drive two decisions – the applicability of hypotheses and the selection of an overall research approach. While all research studies have questions – all studies do not include hypotheses. The level of existing empirical knowledge will determine whether a hypothesis is appropriate. A hypothesis is not a wild guess, but rather a logical conclusion based on the previous research findings identified here in the literature review. A hypothesis is the predicted answer to a research question. The level of existing knowledge and the decision to include or not include hypotheses will drive the appropriate overall research approach.
Align and Integrate
- The literature review should provide a clear understanding of the level of empirical knowledge that currently exists. This level of knowledge is a key input to the selection of an overall approach.
- The literature review should identify what we already know about the variables, relationships, and context identified in the research questions.
- As with all the components of the research methodology, the literature review should address the variables, relationships, context, and so forth identified in the conceptual framework. Once the literature review is complete the conceptual framework should be revised (as necessary) based on new insights gained from the analysis of the literature and previous research findings.
Gutknecht, D. & Miller, J. (1986). The organizational and human resources sourcebook. Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America.