Criticality is critical in your literature review

Examine carefully the behaviour of these people:
Find it surprising though not unusual
Inexplicable though normal
Incomprehensible though it is the rule.
Consider even the most insignificant, seemingly simple
Action with distrust. Ask yourself whether it is necessary
Especially if it is usual.
We ask you expressly to discover
That what happens all the time is not natural.
For to say that something is natural
In such times of bloody confusion
Of ordained disorder, or systematic arbitrariness
Of inhuman humanity is to
Regard it as unchangeable.

Bertolt Brecht’s comedy The Exception and the Rule was written in 1930 and first performed in 1938. It begins with this prologue, in which the actors advise their audience on how to pay attention to the material to follow.

A few things (not many) I know about Bertolt Brecht. He was born in the Black Forest in Bavaria. He was a life-long Marxist. He was a poet, producer and playwright. In 1930, he moved from Munich to Berlin. By the end of the same decade, fearing Nazi persecution, he had fled to Stockholm, then to Helsinki, then to the US. In 1947 he was interrogated in Washington by the House Un-American Activities Committee, an organisation set up to investigate subversion. Brecht denied being a member of the communist party, but opposing camps of East and West were apparently both disturbed by his work during the Cold War, because, it has been argued, his work set out to disturb rigid polarities.

What else? Elizabeth Wright (2016) suggests we should think of Brecht as a postmodernist avant la lettre. He was sceptical of the grand narrative – the general truths, the absolute rights and wrongs, the great heroes or villains and so on – and yet he believed in producing knowledge that was useful and shareable publicly. Unlike social constructionists attempting to uncover tacit, underlying discourses, Brecht’s plays set out to perform this deconstruction ‘live’, to act it out, as it were. He was famous for the Verfrendungseffekt – the ‘estrangement’ or ‘alienation’ effect – where, in gestic style, as above, actors appealed to their audience to participate actively in the deconstruction of meaning during the performance. Specifically, the audience was encouraged to retain a feeling of un-familiarity, so that previously imagined ideas of reality could be thoroughly disrupted.

So to the opening of The Exception and the Rule. Wright suggests Brecht is inviting us into a dialectic about comedy, which goes something like this:

  1. Thesis: Comedy is a natural, innate, universal phenomenon.
  2. Antithesis: Comedy is historically and culturally situated.
  3. Synthesis: (a new thesis, both 1 and 2) We can laugh naturally at our own historically and culturally situated humour. This ‘both and’ moment in the dialectic is an ideal ground for new knowledge, change and social transformation. Laughter is directed “at the amusement of an audience which is learning to perceive its historical advantage” (Wright, 2016, p. 51).

OK, enough is enough. What has this got to do with critical literature reviews (and doctoral research proposals)?

I think a critical literature review could be thought of as a performance a bit like one of Brecht’s plays. As a move away from the received wisdoms of undergraduate psychology, and other received wisdoms. As a process that involves un-learning. Interrogating the familiar. Retaining the un-familiar. Taking nothing as read. Treating everything with distrust. Holding on to difference. Who said that? About whom? With what words? Where did those words come from? Why? What might have been the motives? What were the rules, and what were the exceptions? As a process that transforms and generates something new for all concerned, including for you. Not as an assembly of universally or objectively true statements, the solving of a problem, the completing of a jigsaw puzzle, a definite conclusion, 2+2=4.

What could this mean in practice? A few thoughts…

  1. When citing material, put it into context. The literature review is an exchanges of perspectives. How much contextual detail you offer about the theories or studies you cite will depend on how central they are to your narrative. But for instance, avoid sentences such as: Smith and Jones (1996) reported that women prefer iced coffee to hot coffee in the Summer. This sentence takes up an expert knowledge position. It implies that women are all the same across the world, and when it comes to women, coffee, iced, hot, and Summer, there is just one reality, one ‘natural’ ‘normal’ or ‘rule’. Instead try: In the context of a qualitative thematic study among a small sample of female White British undergraduate students aged between 18 and 25, Smith and Jones (1996) suggested that… This sentence implies that knowledge is bound by context. Think of Heidegger, if you like, and ‘dasein’ – there-being. ‘There’ comes before ‘being’… from our ground comes our perspective. There is no view from nowhere…
  1. Choose your verbs with care. Avoid verbs like: showed, pointed out, identified, found, demonstrated, reported. These verbs belong in a world of experts in (one) reality. Remember positivism means one way of knowing (epistemology) about one reality (ontology). Pluralism means more than one, of both. Dialectical pluralism goes further and embraces contradiction and incoherence (Mitchell, 1982). Better verbs might include: suggested, implied, interpreted, argued, seemed concerned with, in the context of, in relation to…
  1. Develop a questioning attitude. Towards the material you cite, but more generally, towards knowledge, reality, others, and yourself. Take a step back and adopt an observational stance, as much as this is possible. Find things unfamiliar, and try to retain this as a motivating factor. Think of a skilled clinician, always interested to find out more, always interested in the words the client chooses, giving space for discovery and interpretation, not imposing… can you adopt the same relational attitude to the material you are reviewing? Notice what you regard as normal and usual. Watch out for your own rhetoric or sentences containing words such as unsurprisingly, inevitably, surely, certainly or interestingly – apart from being poor academic English, ask yourself where you are coming from: who am I trying to persuade, and of what? What can I not let go of? What are my desires, fears, rules? Watch out also for sentences of the form x is y, or sentences containing always, never, should, completely, everyone, no-one… Why am I eliminating difference, and what am I assuming? Consider using perhaps and contingent verbs: may, might, could, seem. Write a statement about your involvement as a process. This is your reflexive statement.
  1. Reflexivity does not equal bracketing. I agree with ethnologist and psychoanalyst George Devereux’ suggestion (1967) that researchers, not unlike therapists, must attend to their counter-transferences as the true data of research. Part of the process of your research will be getting to know, owning and using your own part in the exchange. In my limited experience, research is often very personal, perhaps the most personal part of training, the point of maximum pain, even. It might go something like this: I had experience x, so I wanted to find out more, and to help. Although it is not always like that… my involvement in my own doctoral research did not relate directly to a specific experience I had but turned out to be more of a process issue to do with my need to arbitrate and difficulty taking a stand. In any event, if you can, aim to avoid: I had experience x, so I wanted to find out more, and to help. However, I will try my best to bracket that off. What if we are all involved in each other’s pain, or humour, or whatever it might be? Unless you are an essentialist phenomenologist like Edmund Husserl, you won’t think it possible to separate from the rest entirely, or at least, how much you believe you can do this will depend on your philosophical position. I think it is precisely by attending carefully to other people’s points of view or experience that we get to see our own more clearly. As Linda Finlay suggests (2002), inter-subjectivity is not a problem but an opportunity in research – and being involved, affected and changed by your research (including knowing that you are, and how) is part of researching ethically (Willig, 2012).
  1. Criticality is a challenge. It is a challenge to adopt a critical attitude and to hold on to uncertainty, difference, and perhaps even incoherence in a literature review. It is a task that most counselling psychologists undertake in their first, Masters level, year of study. Criticality is what makes mastery out of a Masters. The capacity to see that all knowledge is contingent and perspectival, that it has uncertainty built into it, and that this is what we can know for sure. Perhaps, again not unlike therapy, we are somewhere on the border between what Wilfred Bion might call K (knowledge) and minus K (knowledge resistance) (Bion, 1962). What is the point or what is the aim? The quality of the next question we can ask. The doctoral question that goes beyond mastery – now it is time to add something and make a contribution. So to the (new) thesis, the new thing we can put forward, which we hope in however modest a way, will represent new knowledge, and generate change and social transformation. Until the next time…


Dr Isabel Henton is an associate at London Counselling Psychologists, where she offers supervision and consultation on trainee research from literature review to viva.



Bion, W. R. (1962). Learning from experience. London: William Heinemann.

Brecht, B. (1979). The exception and the rule. In J. Willett, & R. Manheim (Eds.), Collected plays: Part One. The mother. The exception and the rule. The Horatii and the Curiatii. London: Methuen. (Original work first performed in 1938).

Devereux, G. (1967). From anxiety to method in the behavioural sciences. Paris, France: Moulton & Co.

Finlay, L. (2002). Negotiating the swamp: The opportunity and challenge of reflexivity in research practice. Qualitative Research, 2(2), 209-230.

Mitchell, W. J. (1982). ” Critical inquiry” and the ideology of pluralism. Critical Inquiry, 8(4), 609-618.

Willig, C. (2012). Qualitative analysis and interpretation in psychology. Maidenhead, England: Open University Press.

Wright, E. (2016). Postmodern Brecht: A re-presentation. Abingdon, Oxford: Routledge.




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