Saturday, July 6, 2013

The PhD: Working with Literatures - Love the Uncertainty

by , Patter:

I am frequently asked by doctoral researchers about reviewing literatures. As they talk, I often get a strong sense that their questions are accompanied by feelings of inadequacy.

My guess is that they feel they ought to have more of a handle on the literatures, and the work that they need to do with them, than they actually do.

Now, this is not entirely guess work on my part as the kinds of metaphors that doctoral researchers routinely use to describe work with literatures are all about feeling out of control - floundering, drowning, being lost … (Barbara and I have researched and written about these metaphors and you can also hear me talking about them in this podcast interview with Ben at Lit Review HQ).

Even though these questioning doctoral researchers have been slogging away at the reading for some time, they haven’t yet got a neat map.

They fear that everyone else probably does, and there is something wrong with them because they don’t. They would like me to give them a magic answer to the problem.

The bad news is of course that there is no simple, quick recipe to getting on top of the literatures. It is just a slow process of getting clear. And in order to get clear, you have to start out being uncertain.

But the bad news is that you stay uncertain throughout the doctorate - it’s just that what you are uncertain about changes. So there’s no point fighting it, uncertainty is part of the process. It’s usual. It’s to be expected.

Rugg and Petrie (2010, p.68) have a useful set of ‘stages’ which describe different kinds of literature tasks that the doctoral researcher must do, with their accompanying uncertainties. These are worth knowing.

I’ve added to Rugg and Petrie’s stages, so you need to read them knowing that this is my interpretation of what they say.

Stages of knowing and not knowing

The doctoral researcher at the beginning of their research:

(1) KNOWS the general area that they are interested in researching and
(2) READS to find our what’s already known about it.
(3) Their TASK is to survey the field, by collecting, reading, summarizing and synthesizing and reporting on what’s there.
(4) They feel uncertain and WONDER about how they can organise these sources in a way that makes sense.

A little later in the process, the doctoral researcher:

(1) KNOWS what their research topic is to be.
(2) They READ to find more specific information about relevant debates, methods and blank spots.
(3) Their TASK is to organise the information into categories and patterns so that they situate their topic in the field.
(4) They feel uncertain and WONDER about how they can frame their topic into a question.

Further on, but still in the first year, the doctoral researcher:

(1) KNOWS the research question and
(2) READS some - the most relevant - texts much more closely.
(3) Their TASK is to select the groups of literatures most pertinent to the research question to construct an argument for their research project.
(4) They feel uncertain and WONDER whether they have located all of the relevant material, as well as how what they are going to do might speak to what is already known. They can only guess at their potential contribution.

At the end of the research, the completing doctoral researcher:

(1) KNOWS generally what research is out there and
(2) READS to clarify what is most germane to their research and what has been published since they started. But they also read for what isn’t known about the topic, so that they can clarify their claims for contribution.
(3) Their TASK is to construct an argument in the thesis text which establishes the antecedents for their approach, which not only describes but also evaluates the field, and which clearly locates their contribution.
(4) They feel uncertain and WONDER about how to connect what they have done with what is already known, as well as what hasn’t yet been researched and all the projects that might therefore follow on from their research.


What I most like about Rugg and Petrie’s stages heuristic is that it makes very clear that there is no moment when the doctoral - or indeed any - researcher knows everything.

They/we are always in a state of both knowing and unknowing. We are always working from one position of knowing/unknowing to another.

Uncertainty about something - or wondering, as Rugg and Petrie very helpfully reframe it - is the norm. It actually is the process of research. After all, if you already knew, there’d be no point doing the research at all.

If understanding that to not know is how research - including working with literatures - is meant to be, then knowing that there are stages might be helpful.

Maybe being able to recognize that you have actually moved from one stage of knowing/not knowing to another could help doctoral researchers adjust to, and deal with, living with uncertainty.

It’s really not the doctoral researcher who is inadequate because they don’t know it all, it is just the process. If that’s the case, it’s probably good to get VERY comfortable with the idea of uncertainty, because knowing/not knowing will just be part of life from now on.


Rugg M and Petrie G (2010) The unwritten rules of PhD research. Second edition. Maidenhead: Open University Press.

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