A proposal contains everything one needs to know with regard to your research. By everything, I mean the following: the question, or what we call the ‘research problem’; the way you look at the problem and how solve it, or what we call the ‘theoretical and analytical frameworks’; and the manner you would want to answer your question or problem, or what we call ‘research design’, which includes the methodology, among others.

The three parts I identified are important parts of the research proposal. But equally important is the review of related literature, or literature review, or simply RRL. Why is it important? Why are some having difficulty in writing one? How can literature reviewing be easier and less tedious? These are some of the questions I will try to answer in this essay.

For the reader, the answers I will provide are based on my experience on writing my own RRL for my Master’s thesis proposal. Certainly, there is no single strict rule on making one. This essay is an attempt to share my experience and hopefully share the lessons that came with it. Also, since I come from the study of politics, more or less the way I will be explaining RRL making is in line with the practice shared to me by my political science mentors and professors.

Why RRL?

Surely, our professors have mentioned several times how important is the literature review in relation to the entire proposal. The RRL constitutes the bulk of one’s proposal. It is important because it locates the proposed research in the literature on the subject. The RRL looks at the various works written and published about your topic of choice. For example, you are interested in decentralization of education. You would most likely look at the literature on decentralization, education, and decentralizing education.

The RRL also helps you identify the gaps in the existing literature. Aside from surveying the literature, identification of the gaps is important. This affirms the validity of your research question or problem. RRL and problem formulation becomes iterative in this sense. Since RRL gives you a preview of the existing literature and the gaps that are in it, you can reformulate your research question to respond to those gaps. It may also this way: You formulate your question and look for literature related to your question. The important thing here is that you learn from the literature and apply it to your question, and vice versa. The RRL, then, is an implied way of justifying your research, its significance and possible contribution.

‘Related’ literature

Note that RRL is review of ‘related’ literature. This means that you do not need to confine yourselves and look for researches and publications exactly similar to or answers your question or problem. RRL is a survey of the literature on your topic and those related to it. With our example, decentralization of education, you may also be interested with the local chief executive and the citizen participation since decentralization has implications at the local level. You may look at researches talking about municipal mayors and citizen interaction, but not necessarily on education. It may be their interaction with regard to health service-delivery, or other areas. This way, you get insights from ‘related’ studies.

I am pretty sure that your topic or interest has been touched or studied by someone else before you. They may not be exactly the same, but the concepts and ideas you are using and they way you are using them have been defined by somebody else. That means there is always a literature relating to your work. Even if you have a bizarre research question, or at least you think it is, the relationships and theories you are using are not. Maybe you just need to go out and search your libraries or do an online search.

Looking for this and that

One difficulty students may have is looking for certain assertions in the literature. How does one know an ontological assertion? How about an epistemological one? Methodological? Definitely, these are important things to note. The question, however, is whether they are important to the subject of your research. You look at the ontological or epistemological statements if your research deals on this. You focus a part of your RRL on methodology when your research highlights the method in the research process.

The same applies to theories. A researcher can discuss both the approaches and the theories. However, in cases where the research is focusing more on the approach, then a part of the RRL may be dedicated discussing the approach more. Going to our example earlier, decentralization of education where we consider the interaction between the local chief executive and citizens, if the research gives importance to the approach, e.g. new institutionalism, a part of the RRL on new institutionalism and how this is used in studying local governments can be discussed. In other cases, if the focus is more on the theory of democratization, a substantive theory, i.e. how decentralization is a means to democratize education, a part of the RRL can (also) be dedicated to that.

Comparing and contrasting

In the RRL, we do not really pit on author against the other. We simply look at what they discussed and how they did it. If there are similarities or differences in their methods and findings, we take note of it. Comparing and contrasting should not be very hard, therefore. Plus, if you really read the articles and chapters you are including in your RRL, this should be an easy task.

Themes and structure

It is suggested that the RRL be written thematically and properly structured. Themes will come out naturally as you read the pieces. In some cases, you can intentionally assign them based on your question. With our example, we can have three broad themes: 1) new institutionalism in the study of local governments, 2) political leaders and citizen participation, and 3) decentralization of education. These themes correspond to the concepts we have in our question or problem.

Subthemes can be used if necessary. Some cases where this may apply are the following: 1) you are looking at international, national, and local levels e.g. decentralization of education in Europe, Asia, and Philippines; 2) you are trying to distinguish one subpart from another, e.g. studies on political leaders, and on citizen participation. Again, these may come out naturally or as may be needed for clarity.

Ideally, the structure of RRL is from general to specific. Since you are reviewing related literature, you have to identify which are broad, less broad, and more specific. In our example, the broadest could be item 1) since it looks at studies on local government using new institutionalism. This is followed by 2), which discusses the leaders and citizens at the local level. Last is 3), the part which looks directly on the subject of the research.

Concluding remarks

I would like to reiterate that all I placed here are based on my experience. This does not, in any way, supplant those provided by your professors. They are far more experienced that me. Also, my listing is not exhaustive. There are more questions yet to be answered.

What I demonstrated here is that RRL-making is not, and should not be, a boxed activity. For introductory purposes, I know that professors may present to us several concepts and general guidelines. But in reality, RRL and the entire proposal writing is a process, a non-linear process. For a starter, you should not be discouraged by mistakes, but rather learn from it. I, too, had committed several errors in making my own RRL. As I continue to revise my work, I learn and learn a lot.

If there are questions, you can send me a message or place a comment here. I’ll try to respond to them.


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