One of the problems I see often when I proofread PhDs is people being too descriptive and not being critical enough. This is most often the case in the literature review.
Critical thinking is one of the hardest skills to master in the entire PhD. Yet, it’s frustrating that many supervisors and doctoral training programs assume that PhD students are already capable critical thinkers.
To be critical in your PhD literature review doesn’t just mean describing what others have written. Instead, it means evaluating and analysing what it is that is being said.
In this post we explain how to master the art of being critical in your literature review. If you haven’t already, check out our post on how to conduct a literature review.
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So many questions…
When we say ‘you must be critical’, we mean that you must critically evaluate whatever it is you are discussing. Your job when critically evaluating is to think analytically, rather than descriptively.
However, being critical doesn’t mean criticising. Instead it means evaluating.
- To provide sufficient background information so that your own research problem can be contextualised
- To discuss how, how well, or even if, others have solved similar problems
- To outline the methods used by others when discussing similar problems
It is the first and second purposes that require critical thinking skills, because you want to be evaluating each work you read and act as an investigator.
A quick and easy way to do so is to ask five standard questions of each thing you read:
Asking these questions means we don’t just take what is written at face value. Instead, we evaluate, interpret, explain, analyse and comment on the text. These questions are a starting point for you to do that.
You’ll need to expand on these questions in order to go into more depth. You can do this by asking (you’ll find these questions in your PhD Writing Template):
- Who wrote this and why?
- What are the authors trying to say?
- On what basis are they forming their judgements and arguments?
- Are they convincing?
- What theories or perspectives have been used? What alternative ones may have been used instead?
- What perspective are they coming from? What research tradition? What methods do they use? Are they appropriate?
- How does this work relate to others in the field?
- What are others arguing about the same topic?
- How does it relate to your research question or problem?
Ultimately, you’re asking: so what?
Don’t drown in a sea of authors
Let’s take an example of what not to do. Consider the following paragraph, from my very own PhD, on a theory of environmental politics known as ecological modernisation (that’s what the EM stands for):
We can see that I’ve become lost in the literature. All I’m really doing is listing various different studies. I’ve failed to think analytically and instead I’m just thinking descriptively.
I’m drowning in authors, navigating complex ideas and theories with little care for critically thinking about each of them. Instead I am piling up layers of ‘this person said this’ in order to showcase the field.
I – the academic – do not appear in this text at all. I offer no insight into my own critical reflection on any of the concepts, authors or ideas that I have listed. I have become invisible. I have not used the literature to put forward my own argument about the state of the discipline or to make the case for my own study.
There are two things to take from this:
- You need to speak with authority. Avoid falling into the trap of ‘he said, she said’, simply listing scholars and becoming invisible in the process.
- Avoid being overwhelmed by the literature.
How could I have improved my own literature review, using what I know now after years of working as an academic, proofreader and a literature review writer?
Consider the following excerpt from a literature review a colleague and I wrote as part of a journal article we had published. Notice how we aren’t invisible in a sea of authors and a sea of ‘he said, she said’.
Instead, we offer our own voice and put forward our own analysis of the literature. The sentence, ’this article argues, however, that all institutional formations are characterised by a combination or formal rules…’ is just one example of this.
Read, read, read, then write, write, write
Counterintuitively, when you are reading something for the first time, you should do so uncritically. Get a sense of what the writer is trying to do and whether the problem that they are tackling is in itself interesting.
We’ve written a guide about how to find content for your literature review. Check it out here.
You want to understand at this stage the ‘how’ and the ‘what’.
Once you have read the chapter, article, or book, and once you have a good sense of what it is about, you can then ask the when, why and how.
You can begin to unpack whether the conclusions are valid, whether the methods are appropriate, whether alternative theories or concepts could have been applied, and so on.
It is also at this stage that you can judge the validity of the paper as a whole. You need to ask yourself:
- Is it an incremental increase in the knowledge in your field, or is it game-changing?
- Is it a classic, or does it just add a little to what we knew before?
The answer to these questions can impact the significance the article or book plays in your literature review when you come to write.
As you write, you are forced to tackle what might seem like a wide range of literature. You are forced to relate different articles and books to one another and to explain the who, where, what, when and why.
But, you need a filter; much of what you read won’t be relevant to the study you are trying to develop or may be of poor quality.
It is these five questions above that act as your filter and which serve as your guide, against which you relate one piece of literature with another.
Your PhD thesis.
All on one page.
Use our free PhD structure template to quickly visualise every element of your thesis.
Conclusion: Don’t be mean
So, thinking critically involves thinking like a detective in order to understand what others have written, why, and how it relates to that which came before and to your thesis. It involves not taking things at face value and questioning everything.
But, it’s not your job to be mean to other scholars. It’s your job to understand how well something was written and how relevant it is to your purposes. If you just list articles in a descriptive way, you won’t be doing this. You need instead to be critical, to ask questions, to probe the words.
Doing so will give you a voice and avoid you getting lost in sources.
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