Dear Master’s Programs student,
Last week I gave you a few basic tips for writing a literature review. This week we’ll look at a key feature of the lit review: synthesis.
Synthesis is more than taking five or six “book reports” and mashing them together. Your job is to analyze the literature as a whole, and explore the areas on which researchers and scholars agree, and areas where they do not.
First, it’s a good idea to keep a summary of each article (or book chapter) you read on a separate index card. (Don’t forget to include all the relevant bibliographic data, as well as results, conclusions, and important notes.)
When you’re ready to start synthesizing, lay out all the index cards on a large table (or on the floor of your room). Start grouping them according to similarities in topic or subtopic. (Also note importantdifferences in findings, methodology, or assumptions–you’ll need to account for these somewhere in your review.) These groupings will start to form the basis of the synthesis portion of the lit review.
Start with areas (topics or issues) in which all or virtually all authors agree. Even within these agreed-upon-areas, be sure to note any minor points of contention. Can you account for these differences (e.g. different research methodologies, differences in cultural/historic influence)?
Next look at areas of clear disagreement among the authors. Why do they disagree? Are there commonalities among researchers on one side of the debate, and similarities among researchers on the other? Be sure to go beyond noting an area of dispute; a good lit review should try to account for disagreements in the literature.
If you’ve seen the episode of Food Network’s Chopped in which contestants must take leftovers and rearrange the ingredients to make a totally new meal, you have a good idea what synthesis involves. Basically you’re taking finished products (journal articles and scholarly reports), breaking down the information contained therein, and combining that information into new, interesting, and surprising ways. In doing so, you’re creating something that’s a scholarly work in its own right.
Happy Literature Reviewing!