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The Use of Mapping in Literature Review

Submitted to my supervisors February 2009
Ammendments in red

1. Introduction

1.1 The Literature Review

Literature review is a systematic method for identifying, evaluating and interpreting the work of researchers, scholars and practitioners in a chosen field (Fink, 1998). More specifically, Hart (1998; 13) describes how conducting a literature review requires:

"The selection of available documents (both published and unpublished) on the topic, which contain information, ideas, data and evidence written from a particular standpoint to fulfil certain aims or express certain views on the nature of the topic and how it is to be investigated, and the effective evaluation of these documents in relation to the research being proposed"

Boote and Beile (2005) suggest “a thorough, sophisticated review of literature is even more important in education research, with its messy, complex problems, than in most other fields and disciplines.”

Students are often overwhelmed by the vast amount of information that they encounter and have difficulty in identifying and organizing the information in the context of their research (Alias & Suradi, 2001). Carnot (2006) suggests experts in their field develop richer knowledge structures, not only in terms of declarative knowledge, but also the interconnections between that knowledge.

1.2 Mapping

Mapping is one of a number of key strategies commonly presented in guides for the doctoral research student in conducting literature reviews (for example, Hart, 1998; Kamler & Thomson, 2006; Machi & McEvoy, 2008). Hart (1998; 162) suggests “mapping the ideas, arguments and concepts from a body of literature is an important part of the review of literature.”

It is the established method for externalizing knowledge and thinking processes. Mapping is variously described as a ‘graphic blueprint’ (Heinrich, 2001), a ‘diagrammatic representation’ (Hart, 1998), and a ‘geographical metaphor’ (Kamler and Thomson, 2006) of the research field. Maps provide ‘tangible evidence’ of a student’s understanding and interpretation of the research domain which can be shared with both peers and supervisors (Kamler & Thomson, 2006).

The shift to another modality helps students create ‘patterns’ in the research field to ‘see things’ that may be otherwise hidden, identifying ‘gaps’ in the research field and ‘boundaries’ to topics under investigation. This can be fundamental in helping students identify potential original areas of study and the parameters to their study (Heinrich, 2001; Kamler & Thomson, 2006; Machi & McEvoy, 2008).

2. The Mapping Process

2.1 Approaches to Mapping

Hart (1998) stresses mapping is not only an organisational tool but a reflexive one. This requires students understanding the mapping process itself and, as various mapping forms and processes can be employed, students need to make explicit their mapping methodology.

Hart distinguishes between declarative knowledge demonstrated by identifying key concepts, ideas and methods, and procedural knowledge demonstrated through the classifying of those key concepts and forming links or relationships between them. Kamler and Thomson (2006) describe the use of mapping in workshops and advocate joint construction of maps with supervisors:

“As preparation for making a visual map, we ask doctoral researchers to talk about their difficulties in selecting and categorizing bodies of research” (Kamler & Thomson, 2006; 47).

They reconceptualise the literature review as a ‘field of knowledge production’ which describes bodies of research and a constructive element which is productive and ongoing. Therefore, their approach emphasises the identity of, and relationships between, different bodies of scholarship from disparate areas, which can be mapped theoretically, methodologically or substansively.

Machi and McEvoy (2008; 50) present two mapping approaches; mapping by core ideas or ‘descriptors’, developed from keywords in research topics, and mapping by author, which identifies key experts in the field and may incorporate the use of quotations and the referencing and citing of others (see citation mapping). These maps can be subdivided by categorisation processes based on theories, definitions or chronology, and cross referencing can be employed between two types of mapping.

Heinrich (2001) advises students to use mind maps as a process of deduction, mapping specific to general concepts (resulting in an upright triangle shape), or a process of induction, mapping general to specific concepts (resulting in an inverted triangle shape).

Kamler and Thomson (2006) emphasise the positional aspect of mapping, in which the learner seeks to identify where she ‘fits’ within the field. They describe one student who adopted a ‘dinner party metaphor’ to visualise her epistemological position in relation to scholars in her field. Maps based on a single article will inevitable adopt the argument process of the author’s perspective. [Rolf: It could represent the map creator’s critical perspective of the article]

2.2 Types of Mapping

The literature indicates an inconsistent range of mapping approaches, types and notations. Hart (1998) describes several:
  • Feature Map: Argumental structures developed from summary record sheets
  • Subject Tree Map: Summative maps showing the development of topic into sub-themes to any number of levels
  • Content Map: Linear structure of organisation of content through hierarchical classification
  • Taxonomic Map: Classification through standardised taxonomies
  • Concept Map: Linking concepts and processes enables declarative to procedural knowledge. With an underlying principle of cause and effect and problem solving, concept maps can show the relationship between theory and practice.
Rhetorical Mapping
The use of rhetoric – communication to argue, influence or persuade – is particularly important in social policy and the political sciences, and may be adopted as a linking strategy (Hart, 1998, Heinrich, 2001). Hart (1998) describes a range of rhetorical devices that can be used to present a case, including ethos, metaphor, trope and irony.

Citation Mapping
Citation mapping is an established research process to specifically establish links between authors through the citation of their papers. Traditional manual citation indexes (Hart, 1998) have become largely superseded by automated databases allowing visual mapping methods (for example, ISI Web of Science). Citation mapping across a topic area can be effective in identifying the frequency of authors and specific papers but does this necessarily indicate key works in the field? Whilst citation mapping may help establish the position of an author’s viewpoint, perspective and epistemology in relation to peers in her field, a broad academic repertoire may result in a diffused and incoherent distribution.

2.3 Mapping Inconsistencies

By comparing the literature with the author’s analysis of maps from PhD students, a set of mapping ‘inconsistencies’ can be established:

Inconsistent Notations
  • Types of mapping notation; i.e. concept, mind mapping etc.
  • Non-mapping diagrammatic representations e.g. process charts, timelines etc.
  • In addition, software / programmes present inconsistent variations or interpretations of mapping models
Inconsistent Platforms
  • Hand-drawn and computer-mediated mapping
  • Within the latter, inconsistencies also within the software / programme used (which may or not be influences by a specific mapping notation or type)
Inconsistent Points of View
  • Point of view of the mapping author, or that of an external expert (such as in the mapping of a specific paper or book)
  • The use of multi-perspectives within the same map
Inconsistent Representation
  • Representation of specific types of nodes or links e.g. concepts, authors, papers, questions, Weblinks etc.
3 Mapping Issues

3.1 Relationship with Writing

Machi and McEvoy (2008; 50) suggest maps are “excellent tools for developing the composition outline of the literature review document,” though, as Alias & Suradi (2008; p.4) point out, “a concept map that looks structurally good may not produce a good literature review.” In his study, Carnot (2006) observed that concept map construction operated at a much lower level of detail than the writing process required.

Kamler and Thomson (2006) describe the concept of ‘verbal mapping’, suggesting the mapping process (or rather the process of describing it) can influence formal written composition, evidenced in terms like ‘key players,’ ‘overlaps,’ ‘intersects,’ and ‘parallels.’

3.2 Mapping Complexity

Research dissertations conducted in Carnot’s (2006) study demanded large-scale and complex domains, sub-domains and interconnections. Sub-domain concept maps were developed to explore key ideas, concepts, theories and authors as described in individual research articles, especially those with comprehensive literature reviews. ‘Overall’ (or ‘top-level’) concept maps were developed to organize the main themes of the dissertations through identifying major issues and research categories from the sub-domain maps and their interrelationships.

Malaysian educational Masters students in Alias and Suradi’s (2008) study utilised a similar hierarchy with their ‘spoke type’ maps. Whilst 98% of the students chose to use mapping to synthesize information from multiple sources (i.e. forming the literature review), only 27% of those also used mapping to summarise individual sources (e.g. academic papers), the majority preferring to use traditional summary tables. This indicates a preference towards mapping at a ‘meta-level,’ in which large themes, concepts and perspectives are explored.

Carnot (2006) explains how easily maps became “large and complex to the point that they could not be easily read,” In some cases, more attention was (wrongly) paid to the location of concepts on maps than the links between them. Students in Alias and Suradi’s (2008) study tended not to exceed a maximum of three levels. As both these studies utilised computer-aided mapping programmes, one could suggest that technology enables a greater depth of hierarchical classification, but that the resultant greater complexity is problematic. [Rolf: Why?]

3.3 Mapping Skills and Learning Styles

Studies indicate prior experience of mapping can be a major influence (for example, Alias and Suradi, 2008), and mapping continues to be contentiously associated with preferable learning styles (e.g. visual-spatial and analytical-mathematical), specific academic disciplines (such as the natural sciences), and learning needs such as dyslexia (Budd, 2004; Laight, 2004; Romer, 2007).

4. Developing Mapping

4.1 Dynamic Properties of Mapping

Mapping processes described in the literature are it would seem, commonly perceived by students as one or a series of static constructions; learning artefacts that are created to help establish the structure and early development of literature reviews. Yet Kamler and Thomson (2006; 49) stress that “mapping strategies can be used at various points of candidature, recursively, as doctoral researchers progress and revise their understanding.” Machi and McEvoy (2008) concur, recommending students continue to develop maps throughout the literature review process, using them as “guideposts in refining the research topic” (p.50). Carnot (2006) reminds us that maps are not always ‘fully developed,’ yet they allow the student to re-enter projects more effectively by providing external records of previous and ongoing work (Carnot, 2006).

4.2 Computer-Aided Mapping

Whilst many of the mapping processes described in the guides to literature review are applicable to traditional hand-drawn methods, the use of computer-mediated mapping tools is acknowledged and encouraged.

The affordances provided by the increasing development and use of mapping technologies are evident in the way maps are potentially constructed, stored, presented, edited and shared. Mapping programmes standardise notation (the mapping method or process). The use of colours and shapes are most commonly used as a primary method of categorising sets of nodes (for example, nodes that represent an idea, a question, an author or a resource) (Heinrich, 2001).

Carnot (2006) describes how mapping software provides “a way to develop reusable sets of resources, and the potential to link to and to organize online and other resources.” This facilitates the construction of ‘knowledge models,’ which Cañas, Hill and Lott (2003) define as “sets of concept maps and associated resources about a particular domain of knowledge.”


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