Synthesizing Methods Literature

Categories: Focus Series, Instruction, Other, Research, Teaching, Writing and Editing

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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).  In previous posts we explored systems that offer guidance on for collecting and organizing literature, and looked at ways to assess previous work on research methods. We close this series by looking at ways to synthesize key points from previous work. See all of the posts here.

The Synthesis Stage

Some forms of writing about literature, such as the annotated bibliography, require us to dig deeply into each source. By contrast, writing a literature review means we need to draw points, findings, insights, recommendations, from across a set of sources.

pileof papers

You’ve made copious notes,
now what?

At the synthesis stage, we pull together the notes we’ve made and try to make sense of it all. We think inductively to create a holistic explanation of the various fragments we’ve collected from our sources. When we write the methods section of a literature review, we draw from diverse sources to create a coherent analysis of the research tradition. As noted in the first post of the series, the literature review situates the study in the discipline(s) related to the research problem, and in the methodological tradition that is used to frame the study.

Naturally, there are multiple ways to synthesize points and perspectives drawn from methods literature. Here are three:

  • Chronological: Trace the evolution of the methodology or method over a defined period of time. Who originated the approach, who came after them to refine or reject elements of the original thinking?
  • Theme: Organize your points by themes that correspond to particular elements of the methodology or methods. For example, you could examine methodological thinking about the position of the researcher, or about ways to structure in-depth interviews.
  • Trend: If you are using an emerging method, you can organize points to highlight ways methodologists address social, technological, economic, or other trends that that influence the design and conduct of research. For example, you could compare and contrast approaches to field work in conflict zones, or ways to work with communities to conduct indigenous research.

Learn more from related MethodSpace posts:

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