In a recent post, I noted that annotated bibliographies are not the same as literature reviews. An annotated bibliography is a list that describes each source you've read while a literature review is an argument that uses previous work in your field as evidence to establish why your research question needs to be asked. But does that mean you shouldn't do an annotated bibliography? Actually, no -- you should. Annotated bibliographies and other kinds of lists are an important tool you can use while you are drafting your literature review.
Few people (at least amongst my students and mentees over the years) seem to realize this -- my suggestions to make and analyze lists in order to get a literature review off the ground often come as a bit of a surprise. I think that is because lists are widely misunderstood. When we think of lists, we tend think of everyday ephemera -- the shopping list on the back of an envelope, the to-do lists on a scatter of post-its, the upcoming not-to-miss events list stuck to the fridge (which I always seem to miss anyway -- but that's a different story😉). So in this blog, I want to make the case for lists as a writing and drafting tool.
I am going to be drawing on Jack Goody's The Domestication of the Savage Mind (1977, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Here, Goody notes that one of our earliest uses of writing was not to set down our thoughts, or to memorialize myth, fable, story, or song -- it was to make lists, largely in relation to administrating agricultural societies and economies.
Some of these lists were fairly pedestrian in purpose, what Goody calls an 'inventory of persons, objects or events' (80). The annotated bibliography is such a list. You can organize this list in all kinds of ways, but you will still be listing objects, things you have read. This can be useful, because you do need to know what you have -- you need a record of what you have read and a basic description of what it's about.
But this good and useful record keeping isn't the kind of list that will get you moving on your literature review. For this, you need a different kind of list: 'an inventory of concepts' (80) -- a list of ideas. And it is this kind of list, as Goody notes, that makes a different kind of thinking possible. In addition to keeping track of what you have read, you need to list the key ideas from those sources -- the questions they ask, the methods they used, the findings they came up with, the interpretations put forward. Notice here that you are no longer listing things you have read, and describing what they are about; you are listing the important concepts -- the ideas inside what you have read. It is the ideas you have to analyze in order to work out what it is about previous work in your field that adds up to why your research question needs to be asked.
And once you have the ideas in a list, you can re-order that list in all kinds of ways, and cross check it with other lists of ideas you've made, looking for connections and contrasts. You can engage in 'systematic enquiry' (83), because you have made a list of ideas. And here is the really important point: you can organize your list into sub-sets of ideas by category (81). And you are the one who gets to decide what the name of that category is. This is where your thinking really begins. Let's say, for example, you have made a list 200 findings. Do 30 of them all seem to point in the same direction, and make the same basic claim? And what claim is that? When you come up with a label for that set of claims, you have moved your thinking to a higher level of abstraction. You have taken a list of ideas, noticed that a number of those ideas seem to express a similar point, and you have named that point. This is the beginning of your original synthesis. The observation that those 30 findings fit together, and how they fit together, was yours. Now you are on your way to making a rock solid case for why your question should be asked.