I had an epiphany one day on reading for my research: You don’t have to read enough to become an expert, you just have to read enough to write your journal article. If I were advising a student, I would tell them the lit review just shows that they know what’s out there–who the major scholars are, what approaches/case studies/theories have been used, what the big debates are. You can talk about the “state of the field” without getting hung up on every single new journal article and book that comes out while you’re writing up your research. There’s just too much material out there—you’ll never read it all. I was thrilled to see Wendy Laura Belcher emphasise that point in this chapter!
“You must abandon the hope of being comprehensive in your reading. No one is reading everything in his or her discipline or field.”
(Belcher, 2019, p. 152)
Belcher’s approach tackles the main problem my students (and I) have had with lit reviews in the past–where to start? It’s overwhelming to look at piles of notes and stacks of books and try to make sense of them. When I’ve taught my Masters students about the lit review, I’ve had them draw mind maps with big circles for the different areas or bodies of literature that are relevant for their project, and then figure out which aspects are most important to focus on in the lit review (or sometimes, to be really pragmatic, we’ll pick the strongest areas that we have the most to say about…). The mind map works for me, but approaching the lit review can still feel overwhelming. Quite a few students misunderstand the point of the lit review, and think it’s just compiled “book report”-style summaries of every relevant text they read. It’s not–but what is it?
Belcher builds upon an analogy by Kenneth Burke about academic writing being a conversation taking place amongst people, and advises us to consider our “entry point” into the conversation. I absolutely love this analogy, one because I can so clearly picture times when I’ve been around people at a conference discussing their research and I know exactly what she means by the entry point to join in, and two, because it’s so easy to explain to my students.
The most common entry point is the one that I was usually told was the only one–the so-called “knowledge gap.” In our MA dissertations, we all had to identify a “knowledge gap” that our work was filling. I’m not crazy about the knowledge gap concept because it encourages people to go for something so small and niche for the sake of originality that they can end up pursuing something that isn’t especially interesting or relevant. That said, sometimes there are actually interesting gaps in the knowledge–before the Fulbright Legacy conference/book I contributed to, for instance, there hadn’t been any work done on gender or race in the Fulbright Program, both of which are important areas that should have been covered long before 2015. Sometimes the gap is simply a case of updating the field, which is also a valuable gap–this is especially true in “New Media”/digital media research, which has to be continually updated to keep up with trends and new technologies. I just read a journal article from several years ago exploring why members of Congress were adopting Twitter–now, scholars might look at their adoption of TikTok, or compare how they represent themselves on Instagram vs. Twitter, etc.
My first draft of the lit review for this paper was all over the place. I thought the “conversation taking place” was a massive debate over the role of deliberation in democratic politics or the role of social media in political communication, and I was overwhelmed. This chapter helped me rethink the “conversation” and narrow it down to two areas–how people talk about guns (and the state of the US gun debate in general), and how members of Congress use Twitter. While it’s still related to big concepts like deliberative democracy and online political communication, it’s more narrowly focused and manageable.
I also loved the citation values section, emphasising the need to cite women, people of colour, and non-English texts where possible. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how many female scholars write about the gun debate (Kristin Goss, Jennifer Carlson), but it still seems that the experts that get cited the most are white men (Robert Spitzer, Adam Winkler). I was rightly stunned by the error example Belcher mentioned–a journal’s special issue on Black Lives Matter didn’t include any black authors (Belcher, 2019, p. 162). Yikes! It reminded me of that viral photo of the “GOP Women’s health caucus” that was exclusively men sitting around the table: