Literature reviews

Advice on literature reviews pretty well always say something like – the literature review should say what’s already been said about your topic – or – you need to bring together the particular literatures that your study is going to use.

I say this kind of thing myself. But the trouble with this advice is that it ignores/overlooks/downplays the ways in which fields of knowledge have historically been constructed.

Some writing advice, including mine, also often says situating your study in a field means understanding the development, key figures and key debates in the field. And there is a problem with this advice too. It doesn’t really explain what understanding the history of the field means, why it’s important and what you need to do and do about it. So let me have a go at an explanation.

History helps us understand the way things are now. And right now many fields of knowledge are a problem. They didn’t get that way overnight. They have been produced, over time, in very particular ways. Put simply, the knowledges in a discipline or field are highly likely to represent quite particular world views.

What do I mean by this? Well, many academic disciplines in the global North do not draw on knowledges from the global South. They pay no heed to Indigenous knowledges. They may also maintain highly restrictive conventions, lines of interpretation and modes of knowledge production which are classed, raced, gendered, heteronormative, neurotypical.

These historically produced field/disciplinary blinkers aren’t necessarily a permanent fixture. They can be removed. Or at least the removal can start here and now, in the present. In your literatures review.

Doing a literatures review which uncritically reports what’s already been said about your topic runs a serious risk of unthinkingly perpetuating skewed knowledge traditions. Just saying what your study builds on, without reflecting on its time, place, culture, is a recipe for reproducing a knowledge status quo.

So why not take the opportunity presented in the literature review to educate yourself about the social life of knowledges. Understanding the development, key figures and key debates in a field is much more than accounting for how things are. It is also about asking evaluative questions such as

  • On what basis was the field established?
  • Who got to speak? who gets to speak?
  • What was written about what, when and for whom? How has this changed over time and in what ways?
  • In whose interests did this research and writing work? Does it still work this way? How is it changing?

Now this kind of reading and questioning does not simply examine who is foregrounded and cited – but also who is not. So there are two other questions to ask:

  • What kind of knowledges, interpretations and authors are missing or marginalised?
  • Are there any patterns to these omissions and sidelining?

If you undertake a critical evaluation of the literatures and it is clear that there are systematic omissions, then it is important to search to see if some of the missing materials are actually available somewhere. They may of not be in university libraries. They may be elsewhere in community archives, online and/or in the kinds of books that academics dont ask their libraries to buy.

And if you do locate the knowledges made marginal in and by the field, it is then not a matter of just throwing in a few citations to give the appearance of inclusivity.

No. If the result of your critical reading of your field results in finding literatures not often recognised and valued, it is important to read them – and to hear what they say. To see whether what they say challenges the status quo in the field, and if so how. And it is important to note how your understandings are changed through taking these new sources seriously.

Reading against the grain of the field in such a way becomes the basis of a very bespoke literatures review. You take the historically skewed nature of knowledge and its various production processes to heart. You don’t produce a lit review that mindlessly reproduces what’s already there.

Your critical evaluative reading of the literatures creates new possibilities of and for your project – and at the same time contributes towards producing a more equitable field and discipline.

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