Methods Literature as Part of a Review

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A MethodSpace focus for March is on reviewing literature to situate it in a research tradition. We are parsing this definition of the literature review: “a systematic syntheses of previous work around a particular topic” (Salkind, 2010, p. 726).  After exploring systems that offer guidance on for collecting and organizing literature, we now look at how we think about “previous work on a particular topic,” when that topic is the methodology and methods for the study at hand. We will close this series by looking at ways to synthesize key points from previous work. See the whole series here.

Previous Work on Research Methods

The process for researching literature on research methods is somewhat different from the process used for researching literature about the topic to be studied. What should we keep in mind when selecting methods literature to include in the literature review?

A unique feature of methods literature is in the types of sources. The main ways we learn more about the selected research approach are books and articles written about research methods, or articles and cases that describe studies conducted with research methods. In other words, if a researcher is planning to design a qualitative grounded theory study, she can read books about qualitative research generally and grounded theory in particular. She can then look for published accounts of studies conducted with qualitative grounded theory research methods.

Books As Methods Sources

In-depth writing about methods is typically published in books. Depending on the journal, discussions of how the study was conducted, rationale for choosing the approach, or background of the research tradition, are generally given brief attention in a research article. The exceptions are journals are focused on methods, such as the International Journal of Qualitative Methods or Methodological Innovations.  Research cases offer more detailed explanations about how and why the study was conducted using the selected methods. While it is helpful to read articles that describe studies conducted with the methods you plan to use, for how-to design steps we turn to books.

We can distinguish methods books into two broad categories: 1) primary sources, original writing by methodologists, or 2) secondary works by authors who use primary sources to explain methods. At an early design stage, when we are trying to decide which method fits the research problem, secondary works are very helpful. Once we have made a decision, we want to find primary writings by methodologists to use in a literature review.

For example, the researcher mentioned above could read the excellent Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Traditions when trying to decide which tradition best fit her questions (Creswell & Poth, 2017). Creswell and Poth use primary sources to explain methods. She can look at Table 1.1 in the Introduction and see major methodologists Creswell and Poth drew upon. The authors explained:

The primary ideas that we use to discuss each approach come from select books. More specifically, we will rely heavily on 2 books on each approach. These are the books that we highly recommend for you to get started in learning a specific approach to qualitative inquiry.
(Creswell & Poth, 2017, p. 11)

For grounded theory, Creswell and Poth recommend books by Kathy Charmaz (Charmaz, 2014), or Corbin and Strauss (Corbin & Strauss, 2015). In this example, Creswell and Poth’s Qualitative Inquiry and Research Design: Choosing Among Five Traditions is an example of a secondary work, while the books by Charmaz and Corbin and Strauss are examples of primary sources. Charmaz, Corbin and Strauss, have written other books and articles that can be consulted as well.

In most situations primary sources are the types expected in a literature review. Find them by digging in your research textbooks and articles using the research approach to see which methodologists they cited. Once you have studied the key thinkers who invented or championed the approach you have chosen for your study, look for current researchers who might be updating earlier ideas. As with any area of scholarly life, the field evolves as new researchers build on and update early work.

Learn more on SAGE Research Methods (SRM)

SAGE Research Methods (SRM) contains both primary and secondary sources on a wide range of methods. Use the Methods Map to display options, or look for Reading Lists. Learn more about using SRM in this Primer. If your library doesn’t subscribe to SAGE Research Methods, access these resources with a free trial.

Related MethodSpace Posts


Charmaz, K. (2014). Constructed grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis (Second ed.). Thousand Oaks: SAGE Publications.

Corbin, J., & Strauss, A. (2015). Basics of qualitative research: Grounded theory procedures and techniques (4th ed.). Newbury Park: SAGE Publications.

Creswell, J. W., & Poth, C. N. (2017). Qualitative inquiry and research design: Choosing among five traditions (4th ed.). Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

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