ARTICLE 32: Research Methods for Ph. D. and Master’s Degree Studies: Literature Study

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


People who do not like reading will probably shy away from making use of literature study for a Ph. D. or master’s degree.

I can understand such an attitude, especially if you don’t have any specific questions that you need answers to.

Or an academic problem to solve.

For some, there are many more exciting things to do rather than to read a book.

I guess studying late at night, over weekends, public holidays and university holidays is not something to look forward to.

Perhaps it takes a special kind of person, or some alien external force to motivate “normal” people to spend what they regard as leisure time engrossed in books.

However, if you embark on Ph. D. or master’s degree studies you will need to sacrifice some of your social freedom.

That does not mean that you will need to live like a recluse.

It only means that you will need to read a lot.

The point is this – as an adult, you are the captain of your ship.

Only you can decide what you should do with your life.

You need to be absolutely motivated to study for a Ph. D. or master’s degree.

So, let’s discuss literature study.

Literature study

Literature study will form part of most research work, regardless of what main research methods are used.

With the expansion of online data sources, it is becoming progressively more possible to undertake research without leaving your study or office.

You can even do research while having something to eat and drink in a restaurant or a bar.

Texts and records can be researched in four distinct ways:

  1. The study of content.
  2. The social construction of documents and records.
  3. Documents ‘in the field’
  4. Documents in action and documents in networks.

However, doing all your research by studying documents is deskwork rather than fieldwork.

When documents are included in the dataset, they tend to serve as ‘background material’ for many research projects.

Literature is often used to crosscheck oral accounts.

The empirical opportunities to analyze documents are endless: newspaper articles, advertisements, policy documents, government reports, blogs and web sites, schedules, letters, posters, pamphlets, brochures, campaign material, etc.

Everyday life offers a range of situations that involve forms and documents.

Particularly regarding interpersonal encounters within various institutions.

Even so, researchers interested in identifying practical examples may find it hard to recognize relevant events in a pile of documents.

The majority view of documentary data in qualitative research is that documents are detached from social action.

In contrast to an interview, the document appears more stable and fixed, whereas the content of an interview seems more dynamic and alive.

Documents can be quite lively agents in their own right rather than merely containers of text.

They can tell people what to do.

They can stir up conflicts.

They can evoke emotions such as anger, relief, envy, pride and despair.

Additionally, people do things with documents.

They can use them for various purposes, both intended or unintended.

They exchange documents.

They hide documents.

They write books and make movies about documents.

To recognize the aspects of documentary data, fieldwork rather than deskwork is required.


All researchers must do some literature study, regardless of which research approach or method they mainly use.

Texts and records are studied for the content, social construction, corroboration of other research methods and to support action research.

Literature study mostly means reading and analyzing books and other documents.

It can also include doing research on the internet.

Documents often trigger chains of interaction far beyond the original piece of paper.

Literature is often used to confirm research through other research methods.

Some researchers would rather do without literature study.

They prefer practical fieldwork or research in a laboratory that is not contaminated by old data.

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ARTICLE 14: How to Write the Second Plus Chapters of your Thesis or Dissertation.

Written by Dr. Hannes Nel


I will discuss chapters 2, 3 and 4 as one unit in this article because they belong together.

The literature review can be more than one chapter, depending on the topic of your research and the amount of theory that is needed.

You can, for example, have a chapter on the literature study that you did in preparation for the oral presentation of your research proposal and a second chapter on the literature study that you did when you did additional literature study after your proposal was accepted and you embarked on the real research.

You could also have explained the research approach for your study proposal in your first chapter already.

Remember that you will not prepare or present a research proposal on the master’s degree level.

Also, the layout of your thesis can be less structured than the layout for a dissertation.

However, it would be a good idea to follow the layout for a dissertation when you write a thesis for two reasons:

  1. Firstly, it is a structure that has been proven to facilitate scientific research.
  2. Secondly, it is a good opportunity for you to practice doing structured research. After all, you will embark on doctoral studies after having obtained a master’s degree, not so?

You can also explain the research methods that you used for the initial literature study as part of Chapter 2 and have a separate chapter dealing with the literature study and practical data collection processes as a third chapter.

Chapter 1 can deal with the context for your study and some of the contents of your oral presentation, or it can deal with the context for your study only.

You can explain your research approach for the literature study and field research in the second chapter. Alternatively, chapter 2 can deal with just the literature study for your oral presentation. You can also explain your research approach for the literature study in preparation for your oral presentation as well as the literature study after your research proposal has been accepted in chapter 2.

You can discuss the fieldwork that you did in Chapter 3 as a first or third option. As a second option, you can discuss your literature study as well as fieldwork in chapter 3 if you did not discuss your literature study in chapter 2 already.

In essence, you will need to describe your research approach for the literature study prior to presenting your research proposal, the theoretical content that you will research after your research proposal has been approved and the fieldwork that you will do.

You should identify as much as possible theoretical information on similar research that was previously done, knowledge captured in books and other sources of information and related knowledge that might be of value for your research.

Reasons why you will need to study literature:

  1. To prepare for an oral presentation of your research proposal.
  2. To familiarize yourself with the knowledge and to determine if it relates to your research.
  3. To dispel myths about the field of study.
  4. To explain competing conceptual frameworks.
  5. To clarify the focus of your research.
  6. To justify your assumptions.

You should satisfy the following questions in your literature review:

  1. Are there sources relevant to the topic of your research?
  2. If there are sources, what do they say about the nature and the development of the topic? (Ontology and epistemology.)
  3. How are the issues researched in the existing literature?
  4. How detail and complete are the literature on the topic?

(Are the points made in the literature elicited and synthesized, or just paraphrased?)

  • How does the literature interpret the concepts and issues on the topic?
  • Does the review clearly indicate when sources are being quoted? (Is it the work of the writers or did they borrow it from somebody else?)
  • Are sources adequately referenced?
  • Do you agree with the existing literature on the topic?

You will need to summarise the existing theory about the topic as a last section of the chapter or chapters.

If your study is just a literature study – you will move on to conclusions and recommendations at the end of this chapter.

That would mean that you will not need to do any fieldwork or experiments.


It is essential to do as much literature study as you possibly can for two main reasons:

  1. To prepare for your oral study proposal. This, of course, applies to the doctoral level.
  2. To serve as the foundation of the research that you will embark on.

Preparing this chapter or chapters might require many hours of hard work.

This will enable you to plan your research properly.


Logically I should discuss doing fieldwork as a next chapter, followed by a recommended solution, and then the synthesis and evaluation of the study.

However, there are so many possible research methods, data collection methods and methods to analyse data that I will have to discuss all of them one by one.

In addition, there are a host of other issues, for example, the paradigms, ontology, epistemology, etc. that you should be able to use in the last two or three chapters of your thesis or dissertation.

In a way, this is a kind of literature study of the concepts that you need to be familiar with before you will be able to conduct practical research.

Therefore, I will discuss creating a draft thesis or dissertation in my next post.

Let me know if you have any issues that you need clarity on urgently. From this point onwards it is not critically important that we stick to a set sequence in which to discuss further issues.

I can easily interrupt my planned articles to discuss urgent questions first.

Good luck with your studies.

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