Organising literature in one’s PhD

There was an interesting email conversation instigated by one of my colleagues today about organization of one’s PhD material, including the literature review and all the substantive theory underpinning the research. Developing clear understanding about one’s reading is, I believe, one of the most difficult aspects of the PhD. I’m putting off reading my literature at the moment, because analysis tends to preclude reading and I always feel these two activities engage different parts of the brain.

The organization of the literature is so tricky, but as other email respondents said: it all relates to the research question. If the research question is not clear, then the literature – no matter how fascinating – may well be unfocused and inappropriate to the study. This is an element of my research I will be re-delving into shortly, once I have finished the first drafts of my narrative chapters. I’ve already been there, but one has to keep revisiting it. An interesting dilemma I am finding is that I am resisting the return – not because I don’t like reading the fascinating material, but because I feel like I would be returning to an old mental paradigm, which I’m not prepared to do right now.

Nevertheless, reading in my field and in psychology has been enormously important to my meta-cognition and I am thrilled that my capacity to understand aspects of my research has broadened considerably. My intelligence has surely not improved, as my ongoing incapacity to understand maths will attest, but I sense that I have the awareness to make better judgements about any number of situations.

I wish I had the intelligence to create a brand new and original way of organising my research, but I think it has already been done, therefore, I don’t see the need to reinvent the wheel. Nor do I see the need to improve on the wheel, unless it’s to make my study fit better. My original idea of using Shulman’s Signature Pedagogy has changed somewhat, because my application of cultural psychology does not really fit this structure. I am still trying to find another structure that may be just as applicable, but I feel a little lost about how to achieve this at present. One of my colleagues is using four pillars for his substantive theory: the construct, the culture, the environment and the voice, which looks very attractive. I think the structure of my literature review will be following a Bronfenbrenner approach, which is a nested system, perhaps a Venn diagram of overlapping areas of research. Cultural psychology offers its own system anyway, because of its focus on culture, interactions with and within the culture, and human psychology. However, I must be very careful that my readings in psychology don’t become overwhelming – there is so much out there that is fascinating but ultimately of no relevance to my study.

Whatever the organisational path I follow, it is a fascinating area I have neglected while I concentrate on the analysis and narrative drafts.


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