As any student knows, a literature review is the starting point for almost any article or essay. When at the level of writing a thesis or dissertation, a review of literature is critical. However, I have issues with reviews.
A few weeks ago, while digging through a whack of literature on sensemaking, the repetitiveness or the process started to irritate me. Almost every paper started with a literature review and then moved into the author’s ideas/research. In one stretch of six papers, I could have exchanged the first five pages of any of the papers and likely not impacted the quality of any. I was reading 7000 words when I really only needed the 2000 or 3000 that provided new information.
A literature review is a context forming activity. It lets the reader know that the author has spent at least some time trying to situate her research in an existing body of research. Context is important when you’re building on the intellectual work of other researchers.
Literature reviews ensure that new ideas follow an existing stream of thought and work. Much like Kuhn’s “normal science” progresses through small iterative changes within the larger bounded structure (paradigm) of previous thinkers, literature reviews ensures that most authors will not significantly break from the intellectual heritage of a discipline. Put another way, a literature review is a controlling, heritage-preserving system. The system works well in the space of normal science – where the research areas are defined and we’re attempting to eke out small improvements.
As pace of change increases, the heritage-preserving aspect of literature reviews becomes a liability. Of necessity, a review is a backward-facing, historical-contextualizing activity. What happens when the very thing we are trying to change (i.e. the higher education system) serves as the foundation for enacting change? Obviously, we don’t get very far as the pull of the past and existing mindsets is instantiated in any attempt at a new vision.
Perhaps what we need is periods of writing without literature reviews. Write for the sake of having a new or novel idea. Grad students in particular would benefit from periods of writing for newness. Who cares if someone has had it before? Who cares if it doesn’t line up with existing research? Sometimes, we need to get passionate about a new idea or dream of a new creation. A literature review is a paint-by-numbers scheme that tells us what has been done and gives us a sense of which little areas our research can fill in. In times of change, we need a blank canvas to guide our thinking, not a largely-filled in “normal science” view of the world.