Writing A Literature Review and Using a Synthesis Matrix

How do you pull together a body of literature? Often people become overwhelmed trying to organize information from many different sources. The mistake that many dissertation writers make when they try to write a review of literature is they describe and summarize individual sources rather than analyzing and synthesizing them. Critical analysis and synthesis involves consideration of the conceptual and methodological strengths and weaknesses of the studies you discuss, relating the sources to each other and to your proposed research, and identifying areas of convergence and divergence as well as unanswered questions that your study addresses.

There are a number of tools that can help you analyze and synthesize your key sources. In this post, you will learn about using a synthesis matrix to organize the sources in your literature review and integrate them into a unique interpretation that not only serves as the foundation of your study but also contributes to the dialogue in your field and establishes your credibility as a scholar.

Below are related FAQs and Answers:

My professor says I have to write a literature review, what do I do?

Well, to begin, you have to know that when writing a literature review, the goal of the researcher is to determine the current state of knowledge about a particular topic by asking, “What do we know or not know about this issue?” In conducting this type of research, it is imperative to examine several different sources to determine where the knowledge overlaps and where it falls short. A literature review requires a synthesis of different subtopics to come to a greater understanding of the state of knowledge on a larger issue. It works very much like a jigsaw puzzle. The individual pieces (arguments) must be put together in order to reveal the whole (state of knowledge).

So basically I just read the articles and summarize each one separately?

No, a literature review is not a summary. Rather than merely presenting a summary of each source, a literature review should be organized according to each subtopic discussed about the larger topic. For example, one section of a literature review might read “Researcher A suggests that X is true. Researcher B also argues that X is true, but points out that the effects of X may be different from those suggested by Researcher A.” It is clear that subtopic X is the main idea covered in these sentences. Researchers A and B agree that X is true, but they disagree on X’s effects. There is both agreement and disagreement, but what links the two arguments is the fact that they both concern X.

This sounds like a lot of information, how can I keep it organized?

Because a literature review is NOT a summary of these different sources, it can be very difficult to keep your research organized. It is especially difficult to organize the information in a way that makes the writing process simpler. One way that seems particularly helpful in organizing literature reviews is the synthesis matrix. The synthesis matrix is a chart that allows a researcher to sort and categorize the different arguments presented on an issue. Across the top of the chart are the spaces to record sources, and along the side of the chart are the spaces to record the main points of argument on the topic at hand. As you examine your first source, you will work vertically in the column belonging to that source, recording as much information as possible about each significant idea presented in the work. Follow a similar pattern for your following sources. As you find information that relates to your already identified main points, put it in the pertaining row. In your new sources, you will also probably find new main ideas that you need to add to your list at the left. You now have a completed matrix!

CREATING YOUR SYNTHESIS MATRIX

As you write your review, you will work horizontally in the row belonging to each point discussed. As you combine the information presented in each row, you will begin to see each section of your paper taking shape. Remember, some of the sources may not cover all of the main ideas listed on the left, but that can be useful also. The gaps on your chart could provide clues about the gaps in the current state of knowledge on your topic.  It is probably best to begin your chart by labeling the columns both horizontally and vertically. The sample chart below illustrates how to do this.

Topic: ______________________________________

                        Source #1        Source #2         Source #3

Main Idea A

Main Idea B

Main Idea C

Label the columns across the top of your chart with the author’s last name and year of publication or with a few keywords from the title of the work. Then label the sides of the chart with the main ideas that your sources discuss about your topic. As you read each source, make notes in the appropriate column about the information discussed in the work, as shown in the following chart.

[Click on the charts to have a clearer view.]

Synthesis Matrix 1Synthesis Matrix 2

After your chart is complete, notice patterns of information. You may find that your sources, at times, discuss very similar material, or that they sometimes deal with completely different aspects of your topic. These patterns can be useful in creating a thesis statement that can guide your writing and keep you focused as you begin your draft.

WRITING YOUR REVIEW

Now how does the above matrix (chart) translate into a review of literature?

Here is an example: “World War Two and its Effect on Women.” This excerpt synthesizes information without summarizing.

While the articles used in this research agree that women made many advances during the Word War II period, it is crucial to realize that not all these changes were welcomed. In most cases women faced discrimination from just about everyone around them. Women in the workplace were often placed in positions of inferiority or treated as being less physically able to do the same work the men did. Many women were often not trained because they were viewed as temporary employees who were only there for the duration of the war (Bruley, 2003, pp.221-222). Women were very rarely given equal pay as men, even though some of them did the same work. Women in the military faced not only mental abuse but also physical harm from their male counterparts. According to Cornelsen (2005), there were many instances where female aviators were injured or killed due to being made to fly ill-maintained aircrafts or aircrafts that had been sabotaged. (p.114)

The sample above is an excellent example of how to synthesize information adequately. Notice how when transitioning from Bruley to Cornelsen the writer notes not only that the two articles are similar, but also how they are similar. The writer goes into detail about Bruley’s discussion of women in industry facing discrimination while noting that Stewart deals with prejudice in the military. The author also transitions well between the Bruley article and the Cornelsen article; rather than summarizing, the author draws comparisons between the two articles, giving relevant information and at the same time synthesizing the two works.

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