Literature Reviews Beyond the Gap
Many of us start literature reviews with the explicit goal of proving a knowledge gap, but lit reviews can, and often should, do more.
The term "literature review" has become virtually synonymous with "knowledge gap identification" in a lot of current research. The scientific quest for discovery—the constant push to know what is unknown—likely started this trend. Nonetheless, the qualitative social sciences and, to a lesser extent, the humanities have embraced this approach, despite their fundamentally different epistemologies from the hard sciences. The social sciences and, on occasion, the humanities are now frequently attempting to fill gaps, to the point where the potential of literature reviews is limited to merely demonstrating the existence of the gap. This fits with a research pattern that is more concerned with filling a gap than with providing nuance about our cultural or social environments.
Do We Really Need to Fill this Gap?
Gap-finding literature reviews seem to be formed around an unspoken argument: “There’s a gap, and that’s why I’m doing this study.” But I’m not convinced that there’s always a compelling reason to fill a gap in the first place. Are all the gaps inherently worth filling just for the sake of filling them? Just because the literature review can prove a gap, should it? Is that enough?
For example, I have read many papers that study sexism in a specific sport and justify the study by saying no one has studied it in X sport, even though the sexist patterns identified in the research are nearly identical in many other sports. The gap is a technicality rather than an actual knowledge gap. Research projects focus on this technical gap but do not illuminate any compelling aspects of human culture or society. Look through the relevant research literature, and you will find study after study proving sexism in sports. Does it matter that a motorcross sexism study has not been done if the results are the same as those in other sports?
These gap-focused literature reviews tend to cite everything known about a topic, even if it does not directly support the paper's argument. The fear of potential critique may lead scholars to cite broadly, resulting in dry and densely packed sentences that merely justify filling the gap with a multitude of citations. If the only goal is to fill a gap, this strategy makes sense because you need to prove the gap exists. But this often makes for dull reading.
I think it’s important to broaden our perspective when approaching literature reviews. Consider literature as a participant in a larger intellectual dialogue rather than just a justification for a study. Our goal is not just to determine a narrow slice of knowledge but to contribute to the continuous growth and refinement of knowledge as a whole. This perspective helps us understand research's collaborative nature and the importance of building on our predecessors' work while allowing future scholars to build on ours.
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Let Your Argument Guide You
Rather than defaulting to “knowledge gap identification,” perhaps let your topic and/or argument guide your selection of what to include and exclude. Your literature review can draw upon ideas that ignite the work you’re doing and situate it within ongoing conversations.
Imagine yourself as an artist creating a mosaic. You carefully select and arrange each tile, considering its color, shape, and texture, to create a captivating and cohesive composition. Your literature review weaves together different sources, ideas, perspectives, and insights to create a tapestry that contributes to the scholarly conversation, much like a mosaic artist transforms individual tiles into a unified piece of art.
For example, let’s say you are a researcher interested in how people interact with digital technologies. Instead of focusing solely on identifying gaps in existing research, you include studies on the psychological impact of social media, philosophical reflections on the nature of online communication, and sociological analyses of virtual communities. Your literature review highlights the complex interplay between technology and human interaction by weaving together these disparate sources and highlighting nuances, controversies, and trends.
But What About Those Gaps?
Never fear, dear reader; I am not suggesting that all research should stop attempting to fill knowledge gaps—especially in the sciences and often in the qualitative social sciences—nor am I advocating that we abandon this type of literature review entirely. Rather, I am suggesting that we broaden the role and function of the literature review, especially in the humanities and qualitative social sciences.
But if you do identify a gap, you should justify why it should be filled. I appreciate how Dr. Julie Spray's (citing Judith Littleton) recently framed this idea in a tweet. She says,
Finding the "gap in the literature" isn't a helpful direction for developing a research question because there's no reason why the gap must be filled. The most helpful tip I received was "what are you unsatisfied with the knowledge about?" Sparked a forever quest for satisfaction.
By rephrasing the gap question, we can dig deeper and identify what may need to be filled the most, and instead use literature reviews to support why knowing what lies beyond that gap is important in the first place.