Literature Reviews

Literature reviews (often abbreviated in academic speak to lit review) shapes the study design. It’s done iteratively and simultaneously to the development of the question and closely with the choice of method(s).

When you go to write the literature review, it will help to show how your research question interacts with existing literature (or research). The lit review will also build your argument. You need to show how your study/project contributes to the existing scholarship. there has to be a connection that readers can see. A logical step through existing work to the main work of your own argument. Your research question(s) will shift, change, or be refined through this process. Remember that research is not linear and the relationship between question, lit review, and methods is an intimate one.

Types of Literature Reviews

If I had to sort of define the types of literature reviews found in academic research, I would make these big categories. :

  • thematic: focuses on themes in the literature and how those themes related to your own argument
  • chronological (or historical): walks through big moves through time or to show how things change over time (e.g., shifts in research from current traditional to process or how new materialism may have shifted from its first introduction to now)
  • areas of similarity and dissent: hones in on the similarities and differences specific to your own argument
  • limited: provides a clear indication that the engagement with literature is limited to very specific criteria
  • theoretical: examines existing research in large part to show relationships between idea and to move to developing a new theory or approach or framework or [insert your favorite word here]
  • comprehensive: incorporates a comprehensive view (that may follow one or several of the above) and shows this comprehensiveness to make a point related to your own argument (e.g., your lit review/theory chapter in your dissertation will be this)

These are just my way of helping you start to get your head around the approaches to writing a literature review. The mini definitions of these I provide are also ways to help you think about how the approach to the literature is directly connected to your research question and your methods. A literature review isn’t a summary of existing literature. It’s a deliberate and thoughtful approach to set up your own work and show what conversations are you talking to and with.

Note, these are the types of literature reviews that go into academic works such as journal articles or book chapters. At this moment, we are not concerned with literature reviews that can actually be peer-reviewed works themselves such as integrative literature reviews, systematic reviews, scoping reviews, or meta-synthesis reviews (to name just a few).##

Take a look at the this CFP from a few years ago: CFPs’ are microcosms of entering conversations and situating the new idea/knowledge quickly and efficiently. Due to their length they are also (typically) mini-thematic lit reviews to help potential authors see how and where to situate their own ideas. While CFPs have a specific purpose, they can shed light on how to establish existing conversations and then situate your own ideas into them. You should be able to see how in a short space the main academic moves of a literature review are accomplished.

Moving to another example of literature reviews, let’s consider the dissertation. This weird genre has an expectation of the literature review being more comprehensive because the purpose of the dissertations literature review is to show you know things and have done the reading (both literally and figuratively). These literature reviews often appear in chronology to cover a lot of ground (both depth and breadth).

No matter the approach, the literature review has to situate and contextualize your own ideas.

Goals of your literature review

Keep three things in mind as you are gathering sources and writing the literature review:

Enter a conversation and build:rather than finding a gap, you are entering a conversation and building on existing work. That means, you have to start within the field in which you identify. Once you think have a handle on the literature related to your topic in your field, then and only then should you go outward to scholarship on the same topic in other fields. I provide information in this way because it is so easy with the inter-connected database world to gather a whole slew of scholarship that people in your immediate field may not recognize, this it undermines your own ethos as author. There are definitely moments when you should borrow and start outward, but in most cases, based on your projects you need to be working in the key journals in your primary fields and then move outward. If you do not know what those journals are, please ask, and or review the journal list.

Forward movement: Your literature review must say something by using the literature to set up your own argument by clearing indicating how you are building on existing work. Each piece (or series of pieces) needs to be one step toward the overarching goal of your literature review, which is to position your work and your idea in the conversation in a generative way (rather than saying here’s a gap I’m gonna fill). You can think of the lit review as the first phase on answering the two most important questions of research: what do I know? How do I know it? And most importantly, the literature review gives new insights into the “thing” by selecting the most key pieces to engage with, to show how the pieces fit together, and to illustrate a. new or different stance that is directly connected to YOUR work.

Clear language: The writing is what makes a literature review work so it is important that you spend some time on crafting the prose that helps connect the existing work and shows why this previous work is important to the field and to your argument. This starts by writing good summaries of each piece of literature (summary here means: key arguments, strengths/weaknesses of argument; key quotes)

Other sources on how to do a lit review

Some students find value in the following blogs in helps in understanding different parts of the research. YMMV (Your milage may vary).  These are not gospel or things to the followed verbatim. They are resources to help you figure out your own way.

These are specifically on the literature review, but these three sites have other views on all the parts of the research process.


##The big tent of writing studies do few systematic, scoping, or meta synthesis reviews. TPC has moved to try to do more integrative lit reviews. This is why that one is the only one highlighted. If you are interested in pursuing this type of review for publication, I am happy to talk with you about what each does and how you may approach doing one.

Research paradigms

A research paradigm is “the set of common beliefs and agreements shared between scientists about how problems should be understood and addressed” (Kuhn, 1962). You should see an immediate problem with this ‘definition,” because it only points to research paradigms in relation to science. But it does and can apply to research in humanities and social scientists too. And Kuhn gets us started in thinking through how we want to orient ourselves paradigmatically in grounding how we approach the research enterprise or knowledge making. IN other words, a paradigm is where we can start and then move toward our methodology, methods, and practices.

Your “do for class” exercise should have led you to a large number of options and opportunities for understanding some driving ideas and terms the underscore all of research. So like last week when we generated some basic definitions of key terms, our goal this week is to also lay a foundation. Rather than purely definitional, we’re going to do some compare and contrast.

Ontology and Epistemology

These two terms are used a lot and in different ways.

“Methodology arises from epistemology, ontology, and axiology. How we know what we know, how we know what is true, and how we know what is good provide the tools for examining the world around us.” (Brock, 2020, p. 8).

Paradigms and goals (sort of)

It’s important to remember that while I separated these for easier discussion that these paradigms are not in opposition to one another. These are not meant to be considered as one versus the other. Rather, it’s meant to visually show at a glance the common characteristics of the paradigms.

Now let’s think through the paradigms as relate to ontology and epistemology.

And then here are the types of questions they are trying to answer (in general)

Now take a moment to compare my little summary to the table on page 7 of this excerpt of a new book in technical and professional communication. I also link this here to show a field perspective that is within the larger tent of both communication and writing studies. In class, be certain to ask why we aren’t using this book as a primary text.

quantitive and qualitative

Often you will hear research broken into two big types of research: quantitative and qualitative. This distinction has been around for likely millennia, and I am not certain it’s a good distinction any longer. By that I mean, absolutely,  there are differences in these two types of research but to try to focus so much on them (and their sibling mixed methods) often puts the emphasis on the wrong things, that is, we need to make sure we know why we are using a paradigm, an orientation, and a type.

Simply put,

  • Quantitative—Numerical data that shows who, what, when, and where. Quantitative data shows scale.
  • Qualitative—Data that demonstrates why and how. Qualitative data offers perspective and helps us understand not just what happened, but why and how it happened.

Mixed methods is when you design a research study that combine different types of methods. Originally, you would see the combination of quant and qual methods, but in the last generation of research (10 years or so), mixed methods also means a combination of methods even if they are all quant or all qual (e.g., a study using interviews, focus groups, and textual analysis).


It is no secret that I am critical of current scholarship in my own field of TPC (see here. and here.). Not only have I published about this, but some of you have heard me talk about it in passionate ways.

But, I want y’all to be better than me. So I want to encourage you to read constructively and critically. I’ve written about reading here. Yes. We still need criticism and pointing out where things can be improved, but it’s more productive, especially early in your careers, to gain a better understanding of what the goal of the research is and what you can potentially learn from it.

In thinking in these terms, you can better pay attention to what it was the author was trying to do, respect that action, and then consider ways that it would have been better. In challenging both the author and our own assumptions, we stand a better chance of reading scholarship in a truly, productive way.

No matter what, after reading a piece, you need to be certain that you can

  • explain what the main argument is
  • describe the stakes of the project (paying attention to who is included and excluded)
  • identify the conversations that is trying to enter or to engage or the new conversations it wants to start

This is what reading productively means (to me) and the practice of reading we want to invoke this term. It’s also important not to just focus on where the argument or the piece fails. Grant, that’s where I (most of us) typically go first, but as I say, I want you to be better than me.

So what that means is this: reading should lead to you being able to use it for something or to know without doubt that it does not apply to your project or your research trajectory.

Some questions that are more generative than looking at what is missing or where it goes wrong are

  • what does this scholarship do to help us think better or differently?
  • In what ways does it open up an avenue on which we can build?(even if it is only a slight thread)
  • what can I learn from this?
  • how does this work with, complement, contradict, [your own word here] things I already know or believe?
  • what knowledge systems does this piece hold up or challenge?
  • what is missing that needs to be expanded?/
  • how can my critique of [insert one thing that is bothering you about it] be shifted to change he way we see [term, concept, idea, problem]?

These questions can help you make sense of the scholarship in a more productive way and to in the words of the course work toward putting knowledge into action. Critique requires specificity and it also requires follow-up action.


What this means for you as a student in a class where I’m designated as teacher is that I know how hard it can be to juggle life and school; I know most of the tricks that give the allusion that you’re doing things when you’re really not; I understand how hard and disconcerting it can be to learn new things, particularly things that challenge your own assumptions, beliefs, and attitudes. So I’ll be as understanding and empathetic and sympathetic as I possibly can.

But….you knew that “but” was coming…..

Because whether its required course or not, you are here in grad school because you want to be.  I want to help you anyway I can, but learning is a relationship that means we all have to put in the work.

I like to get out of the way a few things so that you know

  • what my expectations are about your participation
  • what you can expect of me
  • what are expectations about doing the work

Expectations about your participation

If it’s listed on the schedule that you need to do something before class, I truly do have the expectation that you’ll do it before class and come prepared to work with that knowledge in class. Do you have to be expert in it? No. Cause that’s why you’re here. But you need to have a damn good idea about some of the major takeaways OR come prepared with some questions so we can get you to those takeaways.

I also have the expectation that for those three hours a week we see one another that you’re going to really try and be engaged and present for those three hours. I know these block classes are hard. They’re hard on us all, but we’re going to do the best we can. One of the ways we do this is to move and to play and to make and to question. All of these require your participation and they also require stepping outside of your comfort zone at times. All I ask is that you try and not be afraid to fail cause that’s part of the learning process.

You will have to invest about 3-9 hours (this all depends on you, but this is a rough estimate from past classes) outside of class to achieve the goals of the course. As in any new work routine, students may need more hours during the initial weeks as they learn to carry out the assignments in a way that balances efficiency (time required) and effectiveness (extent of coverage, depth of comprehension).

If you have concerns as we move through the term, please talk to me about them.

Your assignments should be carefully written and edited and move toward the learning goals.

Expectations about me

One of the most important things you can expect from me is having an inclusive classroom. What that means is our classroom is a space where we can have open, fruitful discussions and all opinions and points of view will be respected. It’s also a space where I’ll work with you to make allowances for different types of learning abilities.

In addition, my job is to

  • Establish the objectives, assignments, and schedule for the course.
  • Share my knowledge and opinions about topics covered in the readings (where you can disagree if want)
  • Facilitate the transfer of information between and among students through discussions of assigned readings
  • Encourage students to express their opinions and formulate their own arguments on the topic at hand
  • Help you make connections between your existing knowledge and the information being presented in class
  • Publish and maintain the course website that contains policies, readings, assignments, and related information about the course
  • Be readily accessible to you during my office hours or through email.
  • Review and offer directive and formative advice on plans and drafts related to the assignments

Moreover, I have and always will run an open classroom. What that means is you can ask me anything in class or out. Openness means, though, that the classroom is a safe, open space so if you are unsure how to raise a particular issue where we can discuss it safely and openly then ask me outside of class how to do this.

Expectations about doing the work

In many cases, you may see the word “professionalism” when talking about the work you do in class (and eventually as a faculty member or employee). So for me, every graduate course is a mini-lesson in developing a set of habits and practices that are often expected of faculty as employees in the vast majority of organizations of higher education. (And I get that “professionalism” and those habits and practices are often coming from a place of inequality, racism, and discrimination. That’s part of our job as critical thinkers to learn how to operate in one while trying to dismantle one at the same time.)

Yes, even academics have things that mark them as professionals. I want you to grow into a  scholar/teacher that enjoys what they do and understands how to prioritize the work with the rest of your lives.

You have the opportunity to continue to develop necessary  skills, such as reliable communication with me and your classmates, problem-solving approaches, cooperation and collaboration, to name but a few. Use this time wisely to try out new approaches and techniques.

And ask questions. There are lots of things I don’t know you don’t know. I can’t help you unless I know what you need. I do understand that you may not even know how to format he question, but you have to figure out a way to let me know where you’re struggling and we can figure out the question and answer together.

Research is not linear

Research is not linear or circular. It’s messy and it’s interative.

The diagram below is my attempt to get us to think through research a little differently than you may have before. This is a work in progress, but it’s a start to get us passed thinking about research as something that has pre-defined steps in a linear path.

The diagram represents what I refer to as research study design.

Typically the research process, what we are referring to here as research study design, has been portrayed as being something of a linear process with the following steps:

  • Research idea
  • Literature review
  • Formulate research problem or question
  • Research design (method, sample, procedures, etc)
  • Data collection
  • Data analysis
  • Interpretation
  • Dissemination/publication

A search on google images for “research design” will generate thousands of images that portray these steps in a linear design such as

Or one may see an image where the steps are placed in a cycle or circle to signify that the process is ongoing such as

Existing models within the field (and many outside of it) try to simplify what is in actuality a complex and difficult process. We feel that these models are not only limiting, but they portray a fundamental misunderstanding of the research process because they fail to explicitly show the complicated, overlapping and messy steps and the necessity for continuous reflexive action and circling back to ensure the project is moving forward in a way that the question can potentially be answered.

We wanted our model to try and capture the ongoing iterative and reflexive process that good research study design requires. Particularly, as more empirical research is being conducted in technical and professional communication the need for a better representation and explanation of the research process becomes imperative. Empirical research is a messy and complicated process that needs a model that better represents it. Technical and professional communication scholars and practitioners need

Research Study Design as an iterative process that is messy and makes more explicit the connections between question, methodology, method, and practice.


We have labeled the figure with three parts A, B, and C, as a way to be able to talk about it. However, the research study design needs all of these parts to be successful.

To begin, the dotted lines and circles represent an ongoing process. The research must move through the different parts and often, it takes more than one (or even two passes) to ensure that those steps have been completed to the part that the researcher can move on.

Quadrant A represents the beginning of a research project and the beginning of the study design. It begins with some big idea or inspiration or even a problem that may need to be solved. (The latter is particularly true in applied research such as that found in workplace studies.) Most initial ideas have to be narrowed and focused to be able to be researched. For example, [example of fine big question but one that really isn’t researchable for a study]. Since we are discussing academic research, the best way to narrow the big idea of topic into a researchable question is through a literature review. The literature review serves two distinct and equally important purposes. First, it helps the researcher narrow down the idea into a researchable question, and second, it situates the idea and question into the exiting body of literature. Many researchers do not adequately do the second part of the literature review step. For example, it is true that a researcher wanted to find research on communication strategies of widget workers who work in a cube office setting in the Midwest that there will likely be no hits. But, the overall idea of communication strategies in a technical workplace has been studied, and the literature in this area needs to be read and engaged with to not only help with research study design, but also to help when writing up results.

An iterative cycle needs to be completed up until the point that the researcher has a firm grasp on how the project fits in and builds upon existing research and what the actual question/problem is.

All during this process quadrant A is associated directly with quadrant B through research methodology, which we’re using here to mean the disciplinary orientations that are guiding the research process. One cannot perform an appropriate literature review if one is unfamiliar with the disciplines journals and theoretical orientations. For example, in technical and professional communication, we have five major journals and a series of second tier journals where TPC research has been welcomed through the years. We are starting to see a growing number of research articles being published in rhetoric journals if the research using a rhetorical theory approach. In other words, without a grounding in the field, it is difficult to know where to start and what will be recognized by those reviewing your work. This is why methodology is connected with the literature review in a two-way relationship. The same is also true for methodology’s relationship with the research question. This relationship however is cyclical, which means the question can shift based on the disciplinary orientation.

The research question(s)/problem(s) connects quadrant B to quadrant C, where much of the actual work of the research study design is conducted. If researchers have managed to craft a solid research question, then it is time to determine how to gather data or information that when analyzed will help answer the research question. Quadrant C illustrates that the question is the guiding factor for the method(s) selected and the practice(s) of conducting the research study. There is again an iterative and circular process where the methods and practices return to the question to ensure that the data being collected is adequate to answer the question. This is why data collection and question are connected by a dotted line, while also remaining in the same iterative circle with methods and practices.

When it is time for a first round at analysis is connected back to methods and practices (which in turn puts it back into the cyclical process with questions and data collection. This location and connection ensures that analysis is reflexively focused on adequately answering the question with the methods and practices selected. If not, then the researcher can shift and begin the process again. In any either case, the data collection and subsequent analysis is still connected to the methodology and question being investigated.

You can read more about my views on research in this blog post (opens in new window).