Sharing the Table: Engaging Dinner Conversations and Literature Reviews

Part 3 of 3 in the Research Process series
by Ryan D. Smith, CAPS Assistant Coordinator of Writing & Language

Part 1: The Right Question: Knowing What to Ask to Guide Your Research

Part 2: The Proper Gear: Equipping Your Research with Quality Sources


Imagine attending a dinner party. You sit at a table with several other individuals, all actively engaged in a stimulating political conversation. It starts out as a good, lively discussion, but soon develops into a monologue from the gentleman at the end of the table, and suddenly everybody tunes out. It’s annoying, one-sided, and – well – boring. This dinner could have been much more enjoyable if everyone had had a chance to talk.

A literature review, or discussion of your sources, goes the same way. If you give each of your authors a monologue, so to speak, your literature review will be choppy and more difficult to follow. It is as if you are a moderator for a panel discussion, and you need to give each of your sources their due share in the discussion. The best way to avoid rambling on about a single author is to find recurring themes that come up in your readings, build an outline based on these themes, and offer a well-rounded description of each theme.

Rather than discussing each source individually throughout your paper, you want to organize your paper based on ideas. So the first thing to do is to come up with several recurring ideas presented in your sources. Say, for instance, that you are writing a paper about institutionalized racism. Some themes that might come up in your sources could include education, diversity in the workplace, the justice system, police brutality, and psychological aspects of racism. Not all of your sources will touch on every theme you come up with. But try to come up with themes that connect each source to at least two others. If you don’t have enough sources to discuss a certain theme, it’s a good idea to look for more sources that relate to it.

Once you’ve come up with your themes, organize your notes so that you can see which of your sources relate to each theme. I recommend using either color-coded notecards or a spreadsheet. If you use a spreadsheet, create a row for each of your sources, and a column for each of your themes. If you are using notecards, use a separate color for each theme, and make a notecard for each theme saying which sources are relevant to that topic.

Spreadsheets are useful just for storing and organizing your notes. You don’t need to worry about adjusting the cells so that you can read everything; you can simply double-click on any cell that you want to read, and the full entry will open up.

After you’ve organized all of your notes by theme, create an outline for your literature review. Find the best order that you can present the various ideas logically. Remember that you will not be summarizing each source one by one, but will be going back and forth between your sources. In our example paper, we could potentially start out with police brutality and justice, have a section on psychology, and then end with the importance of diversity and education. Next, start developing a logical order for your notes and commentary within each topic. Make sure to include all of your notes and commentary about each topic in your outline, so that you can see which sections are missing information, or which sections need to be expanded a little further.

There are a few things to think about when expanding a section. Firstly, it is important to include enough information from your sources to give your reader an overall understanding of the topic. This includes anything that might be foundational, and all arguments relevant to your research topic. Secondly, you want to make sure you have enough to say about each topic. Try adding your own commentary between citations. You can discuss how they are relevant to your research, or analyze their arguments and methods. Thirdly, a well-rounded argument should present all of the major sides of an issue. Not only does this make your argument more credible, but it also gives your reader the opportunity to make up their own mind about the topic. It strengthens your own argument further by supporting claims for and against each side with evidence. In our example paper, for instance, we would also want to include articles that deny the need for police reform, or that discuss the role of perception bias in judgment decisions.

Being an objective researcher means you allow the evidence to inform your opinion, rather than choosing evidence to support an opinion you’ve already developed. By presenting a well-rounded argument, you will both transition more smoothly between ideas and give your reader more substance on which to form their opinion. Adding tension to your paper will also make it more interesting to read. After all, the best dinner conversations have a little bit of heat.

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