How do I do a good literature review?
June 23, 2010 9:20 AM   Subscribe

How do I do a good literature review for a research paper in philosophy? I have access to good resources, but I really want to make sure that I cover everything that's been written on the topic. How can I put myself at ease while making sure I don't miss a beat?

I'm a 2nd-year philosophy undergrad, and I'd really like to start doing research before I get anywhere near graduate school. But I've been struggling to get started, since I have no idea when I can say I've read enough to say something substantial about a topic.

My interest lies mainly in the history of philosophy. Right now, I'd love to do a paper on Kierkegaard. I've scoured SEP, JSTOR, the Philosopher's Index, and the academic library at my institution. I've found and indexed all of the papers/books I have free access to. But how do I make sure that I'm covering all my bases? I simply can't tell whether or not, even if I read much of this material in a guided fashion, I will yet be able to write a good paper on anything in specific. I understand that I can't possibly read or find everything, but how do I alleviate these fears?

I'm especially worried that I'm missing books that have been written on the topic, for example. I don't mind not having a paper or something, as long as I know information about it that an index like Philosopher's Index can tell me. But such resources don't generally index books, and I know that my academic library doesn't have nearly all of the books there are to be found. Interlibrary loan takes a long time, and I'm not sure what assurance WebCat can give me about my field of research. So a second question: how do I make sure I'm covering all of my bases when I dont' have access to a specialized library on a thinker or a topic?

All of these concerns are generally the same, though. So to put it bluntly: when I do research in philosophy, what kind of wrangling is required with my resources before I can be confident enough to write something about my topic?

Any advice on writing research papers in philosophy is welcome. Thanks!
posted by superiorchicken to Education (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
Lo! Zotero!
posted by The White Hat at 9:27 AM on June 23, 2010

Best answer: Go to the library and get the most recent four or five books written on Kierkegaard (this is assuming you have access to a good university library). Look at their works cited page. Go to the philosophy journal that most closely lines up with your interests in the field, or the field in which you work, and look at the most recent four or five essays on Kierkegaard (or your topic, or whatever). Look at their works cited, or their footnotes. Chances are you see the same names of scholars or texts showing up over and over. Find those texts and skim them. Look at their works cited pages. Iterate.

If a book is acknowledged by the field to be relevant to your topic, it will be cited in subsequent work. If it's judged by the field to be peripheral or irrelevant, it will be cited less, if at all. As an undergraduate student in philosophy, your work should be to understand the contours of your field, rather than to expand them - that's what you do in grad school! For your purposes, chances are your library and interlibrary loan is sufficient.
posted by Pickman's Next Top Model at 9:38 AM on June 23, 2010

Response by poster: Thank you for the wonderful answers so far! Mendeley looks like an especially awesome program.

Bwithh, do you know of any place where I can find good literature reviews on a given topic, or what kind of techniques I can use to find more of these in the databases I have access to? Reading literature reviews sounds extremely, extremely helpful. Thank you for your help!
posted by superiorchicken at 9:52 AM on June 23, 2010

Are you in an analytical or continental (roughly speaking) department? Does it specifically have a historical orientation?

Where I did my undergrad (analytical), my professors were more interested in my coming up with ideas, that I learn to "think like a philosopher" and that my papers were tightly argued rather than that I had breadth of research. You do say "research paper", but for most philosophy "research" this means something other than just reading everything in the library (unless you find this useful for stimulating new ideas).

Metafilter's librarians will probably also be along to point this out, but you should also consider talking to your librarians and in particular perhaps, your subject area librarian for philosophy. However, as a second year undergrad you may or may not be who they're targeting their attention at, depending on the size of your university.

I'm not saying this advice might not also be applicable to Continental departments, I just haven't been on the inside, so I don't really know.

A further bit on a tangentially related idea about studying philosophy:

C.S. Lewis writes in Surprised by Joy that when he accepted a position as a philosophy tutor at University College Oxford in 1924 (his later academic career was as a fellow of Magdelen College where he would instead be a tutor in English Language and Literature) he found he had to have a sharp position from which to argue in order to teach philosophy. There's something to this as a student as well. In order to learn to criticize, you'll have to make some (at least tentative or arguendo) committments, though you're free to change them later. Here's the interesting bit from Lewis:
I was now teaching philosophy (I suspect very badly) as well as English. And my watered Hegelianism wouldn't serve for tutorial purposes. A tutor must make things clear. Now the Absolute cannot be made clear. Do you mean Nobody-knows-what, or do you mean a superhuman mind and therefore (we may as well admit) a Person? After all, did Hegel and Bradley and all the rest of them ever do more than add mystifications to the simple, workable, theistic idealism of Berkeley? I thought not. And didn't Berkeley's "God" do all the same work as the Absolute, with the added advantage that we had at least some notion of what we meant by Him? I thought He did. So I was driven back into something like Berkeleyanism; but Berkeleyanism with a few top dressings of my own.
posted by Jahaza at 9:56 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

I would recommend talking to a philosophy librarian at your school. Bring everything that you have, or send it in advance, and ask if you are missing anything. They are probably used to undergrads expecting them to do all the work so a bright, resourceful student like you will be a refreshing change. Is there a professor in your department that you can talk to? They can also give you good advice on where to look. This will have the added bonus of developing a relationship with a professor who can then write a letter of recommendation for grad school.
posted by nestor_makhno at 10:02 AM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Also, ask your professors or grad students who work on the topic. A lot of information about which works are good or relevant or hot or worth seeking out is not written down anywhere... it's institutionally encoded and distributed conversationally more often than in print.
posted by painquale at 10:02 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

When I started doing academic research, this is what I did for topics that I was interested in but had no idea where to begin:

Look at course syllabi from "good" schools/departments that would include the general topic area (you'll find many of them online). This would give you an idea of books, as well as seminal articles in the area.

When doing the lit review, an efficient way to do it would be to start from the latest articles in the "A" journals in your field. I have no idea what these are in Philosophy, but any of your professors should be able to tell you that. By the way, very often, you may find that someone has already done a complete review of the topic, so you should include "review of " + "your topic" as search terms. If so, focus on this article first, then move on to your specific research question.

Look at the lit review in these articles and note the sources that they have referred to. After reading a few of them you will start noticing consistent references that you should probably refer to yourself. Do not attempt to read all the articles in your search results.

And something I need to remember myself: after a thorough search like you seem to have done, and following the above steps, start writing! You'll start noticing gaps in your review/argument as you write and may have to do another search or read some more, but that's okay.

Good luck with your research!
posted by prenominal at 10:02 AM on June 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

Go to the reference desk and find out if there's a librarian who focuses on philosophy. Ask that person for an appointment. Then tell the librarian your research question and where you've searched and the search terms you've used. He or she will help you fill in any gaps. But, really, you're doing good.
posted by bluedaisy at 10:50 AM on June 23, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Go to the library and get the most recent four or five books written on Kierkegaard (this is assuming you have access to a good university library). Look at their works cited page. Go to the philosophy journal that most closely lines up with your interests in the field, or the field in which you work, and look at the most recent four or five essays on Kierkegaard (or your topic, or whatever). Look at their works cited, or their footnotes. Chances are you see the same names of scholars or texts showing up over and over. Find those texts and skim them. Look at their works cited pages. Iterate.

Do not attempt to read all the articles in your search results.

Sage advice.

So to put it bluntly: when I do research in philosophy, what kind of wrangling is required with my resources before I can be confident enough to write something about my topic?

Honestly, sometimes it's best, especially when you're just starting out in philosophy, to *not* read secondary texts and just respond, research, critique the original work, or the original work in light of a limited and focused 'something else'. Academic philosophy is on a one-way street to points-so-pedantic-they're-trivial-ville, so if you go about trying to respond to everything written on The Sickness or whatever, you're going to lose your mind and your paper will suck. Like, if you tried to do a research or history-centric paper about Russell's On Denoting and started by reading every relevant thing written since, you would explode.

If it's the history you're into, think about hermeneutics, they way we now interpret Kierkegaard's work, its relation to changing interpretations of Christianity or its contributions to later existentialist thought or to the rise of anti-depressants and mood altering drugs or something.

Lastly, remember that, at least imo, philosophy is partially a creative endeavour. Your thoughts are good. Go with them. As my thesis advisor once told me, all philosophers shit in the morning.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:09 AM on June 23, 2010

Ask a professor who is working in this area. Professors are like the slip-and-slide of the research process.

Also, you'll never read everything out there. You just won't. Even if you think you have, once you start writing, you'll realize there are all of these holes in your research that you still need to fill. And five years later, you will look back at your paper--if you've kept reading in philosophy--and go, "I can't believe I didn't mention such-and-such." So it goes.

And maybe you've already got this covered from class-work and the other books you've been reading, but my sense of a philosophy paper--as a philosophy major--is that the intellectual lineage of a thinker you're writing about is as important as the modern criticism. For example, if you were talking about ethics and Kant, you could talk all you wanted about modern scholarship, but if you were writing with no sense of the other main systems of morality that either pre-dated Kant or were reacting to him somehow--say, J.S. Mill, Aristotle, and Rawls--then your analysis won't get very far. It's not that you need to mention the others all the time, it's just important context to know. This is another reason why professors are so helpful. I've never read Kierkegaard, so I have no idea who the related thinkers would be, but a professor would know.
posted by colfax at 11:25 AM on June 23, 2010

Philosophy Compass only publishes literature reviews and survey articles, and they tend to be great. It seems that the only article they've got on Kierkegaard is on Kierkegaard's conception of God, though.
posted by painquale at 1:45 PM on June 23, 2010

Yes, definitely talk to your professors and your librarians. They'll be able to give you a lot of good guidance. And absolutely don't worry about trying to find everything written on the topic. As part of a larger research paper it's neither necessary nor possible. The above advice from Pickman's Next Top Model about finding recently published books and articles and following their citations back is the best way. You already sound like you'll be waaaaaaay ahead of the game for most undergrad papers, so really don't stress too much.

Also, I got some good advice about lit reviews recently from a faculty member. The way most people, especially undergrads or beginning grad students do it, is to write brief summaries of the articles covered by their lit review. It's a lot of "and then Blah said fleebity flobble, which was followed by Whozi's paper that said spleenity doo." A good lit review, he said, tells a story. Before you can do that, you need to know your research question. Then you use your lit review to build an argument for how you got to where the question you're asking is the next step in a chain of debate. So rather than writing up everyone who ever said something about Kierkegaard, write about the people who made relevant contributions to the particular aspect of Keirkegaard's philosophy that you want to talk about.
posted by MsMolly at 4:19 PM on June 23, 2010

Best answer: Take your big list of sources and go to the professor's office hour (or make an appointment). Talk to your professor and ask what level of detail they want in the lit review, if they would recommend you focus on any particular ones of the sources you've found, what kinds of advice they have about strategy for this task. Tell them what you've tried so far, ask how many of the papers they expect you will read (hint: not all!).

Talking with your prof as you're working will help you develop your instincts about what's helpful work and what's just spinning your wheels.

You cannot read everything ever written about MOST topics in philosophy. The kind of scope you're describing is the kind of project that normally takes people several years - it will not work for an undergrad paper. Abandon that very-broad-scope ambition; you don't have the resources to do that right now. Instead, I'm guessing the goal of your assignment is to become reasonably familiar with the five or ten most important/interesting sources/arguments. (This will be plenty of work, so don't start feeling like it's too easy to be worth your time. You may find that doing a thorough job with two sources will be a lot of work!)

Figuring out which are the most worthwhile to look at, given your specific project (talk to your prof to help narrow down what aspect of Kierkegaard you will write about), is the big task. You may need to read the abstracts, you may want to read a summary article about the issue and see what debates it describes, and see who's on which side of those debates. (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, free online, is a nice starting point for these kinds of summaries)

Then once you've picked five or ten pieces to read, read them. Take notes. Summarize and take notes as you go; it's easy to forget who said what, or what the point of that article was, etc. If you're disciplined, it's nice to do a one or two page summary of each article after you've read it. As you read, think about whether you agree with the author, whether the conclusions seem to follow from the premises, whether the textual evidence the author gives for some interpretation really supports that interpretation, etc.

Once you're done this first round of reading (which might take some time!) write up a summary of what you're thinking. "I think Jones is probably right about x, but Smith has a good point that y. I don't find Johnson very persuasive, I think he's missing what Kierkegaard says about z." That sort of thing. Then you can refine - which of these observations do you feel strongest about? Okay, you can write a paper on that narrower issue. Write up a few pages now. Then you can go looking for other people who've addressed this narrower issue and repeat the process.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:40 AM on June 24, 2010

Another thing about philosophical research: the latest articles are usually not the most important. The most important ones to read will be the ones from twenty or forty years ago, which have sparked off a debate that's been going since. Often the newer articles are about small sub-topics inside those debates, and you won't be able to put them in useful context until you've gotten familiar with the debate from years ago. That's why a summary article or some advice from a prof is important - to allow you to see which are the "seed" articles you should begin with. Citation indexes can also be useful for this (lets you see how many subsequent articles have included a given article in their citations).
posted by LobsterMitten at 8:00 AM on June 24, 2010

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