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Arnold Wentzel teaches economics, teaching methodology in business, and also research writing skills across social science disciplines at the University of Johannesburg. This is the first in a four-part series in which he explains his way of approaching the literature review. Arnold reminds us to pay careful attention to assumptions in order to produce effective argumentative writing.

by Arnold Wentzel

PART 1: UNDERSTANDING THE LITERATURE REVIEW AS ARGUMENTS SUPPORTING THE RESEARCH QUESTION

The label ‘literature review’ is a misnomer which sometimes leads thesis writers to produce unfocused and badly written literature review chapters. This post begins a series of four that untangles the purpose of working with literature.

The literature review chapter usually follows the introductory chapter which has argued for a specific research problem and question, and precedes the research design chapter which will explain how the question is to be answered. In the introductory chapter the question is posed, but in the research design chapter the question is taken for granted. Positioning the literature review chapter between these two chapters tells us a lot about its purpose – and there is much more to it than simply ‘reviewing’ the literature. I suggest that a primary aim of the literature review chapter is to make the case that the question should be accepted. To state it differently: the literature review is a series of connected arguments in support of the research question. Instead of a mere ‘review’, it must firmly scaffold the overall argument, the thesis, by argumentatively engaging with the literature.

All questions are built on a foundation of assumptions, that is, they are based on propositions that we take for granted. The question ‘why were you late?’ assumes that you were late. The simplest of questions makes several assumptions, some mundane and some critical. If any of the assumptions that underlie a question are implausible, the validity of the question is in doubt. If I ask ‘when did you stop smoking?’ but you never smoked, my question is problematic and cannot be answered meaningfully.

Being unaware of assumptions can sometimes mean that researchers are trying to answer questions that have no meaningful answers.

We can’t do away with assumptions because any pursuit of knowledge has to start somewhere. Since we have to accept assumptions on faith, they are always open to doubt, and so is everything that is based on them. But you can reduce the chances that others will dismiss your question before your research is able to make an impact. The way to do this is to identify the assumptions in your question and, with the aid of the literature, argue that these assumptions are currently accepted by the intended audience, or at the very least defensible.

Not all assumptions need to be argued – only those that are open to argument according to the audience you are writing for. Most research questions make several inter-related assumptions that need to be argued. These arguments need to be made in a logical sequence so that by the time the last argument is reached, the audience is convinced of the validity of the question. A good literature review will result in a series of logically connected arguments that support the research question.

The need to make arguments in relation to the literature, not just review existing literature, results in a different approach to writing. You start by looking for connections between ideas and making ideas and authors talk to each other. The literature review then becomes like a talk show in which the author is the talk show host, directing the conversation between guests (other authors) around ‘talking points’ (the assumptions). The talking points are arranged sequentially until they lead to the point where the question is accepted as defensible (or non-problematic) by the audience. Given that assumptions are open to doubt, the author will not merely produce a list-like literature review, but will draw in other authors as needed to argue with each other until each assumption is settled. The result is more coherent and more critical writing.

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In the rest of this series I will present a technique for writing better literature reviews based on this understanding. It involves firstly generating the content of the literature review (Part 2), connecting and structuring this content (Part 3), and then deriving a writing plan (Part 4) that should lead to a coherent and critical literature review. A word of caution from my own experience: while this technique may appear easy, it requires a lot of judgement, the kind of judgement that is only possible if one is already familiar with the literature. Using the technique before having read the literature can lead to confused writing and dubious arguments.

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