A colleague once commented on a student’s work in the following vein: ‘I don’t really need you to tell me what the author thinks, since I can read her thoughts myself, but I do want to know what you think about what the author thinks’. Literature reviews are not a description of what has been written by other people in a particular field, they should be a discussion of what you think of what they have written, and how it helps clarify your own thinking.
This is why critical judgement is so important for your literature review. You must exercise critical judgement when determining which sources to read in depth, and when evaluating the argument they put forward. Finally, critical judgement is important in communicating how those arguments might frame your research. It should not be a narrative of what you have read and the stories those sources tell. It should be sparing in its description of others’ arguments, and expansive in how those arguments have shaped your own thinking.
You need to exercise critical judgement as to which resources are the most useful and worthy of discussion. Having done this, you also need to ensure that your review is analytical rather than descriptive. A critical review extracts elements from the resource that directly relate to the chosen research interest; it debates them, or compares and contrasts them with how other resources have analysed them. A critical examination of the literature should allow you to develop your understanding of your research question. It should guide you to what knowledge you will need to answer your research question, and begin to develop some subsidiary questions. This will break the content down into more manageable and achievable segments of knowledge that you require.
Some elements of a good critical literature review are:
- relating different writings to each other, indicating their differences and contradictions, and highlighting what they lack
- understanding the values and theories that inform, and colour, reading and writing
- viewing research writing as an environment of contested views and positions
- placing the material in the context of your own research.