Introduction: Reviewing Bodies of Literacy Scholarship: Practices, Possibilities, and Potentials

Why Write a Book on Research Syntheses?

People carry out research syntheses for various reasons. Research syntheses can clarify how a domain or subdomain of scholarship engages with theoretical or social constructs, survey the landscape of a body of scholarship, identify gaps and/or silences in available research, identify theoretical shortcomings, synthesize findings across studies, and/or help scholars, practitioners, and policymakers to understand what supports literacy learning.

Aren’t All Research Syntheses the Same?

In this section, we describe various types of research syntheses. We will start with traditional literature reviews including dissertation literature reviews,

literature reviews within articles, and stand-alone literature reviews, including handbook, chapters, and integrative literature reviews. Differences among these traditional forms of literature reviews are identified and explored. We then explore other, less traditional, forms of research syntheses, including qualitative meta-ethnography and metasynthesis. These forms of research syntheses are detailed in Chapters 2 through 6.

We use the term research synthesis to reference any form of review that looks across primary studies. Research syntheses analyze and interpret research reports rather than collecting raw data. A synthesis is connective in that it tells a story of what is known across the findings of a study. We agree with Suri (2014) who argues that the purpose of syntheses is to create new knowledge by making connections or integration across primary studies. As evidenced by our glossary (Appendix A), there are several sub-types of integrative research syntheses including conceptual literature reviews, integrative literature reviews, meta-ethnographies, and qualitative metasummaries. Suri (2014) argued that research syntheses could draw on both quantitative and qualitative methodologies, including statistical research syntheses, systematic reviews, and qualitative research syntheses. In this book, we focus on quantitative research syntheses.

In our reading of books and articles that address various types of research syntheses, we found a dizzying array of terms. In part, this reflects the growth of syntheses as academic enterprises. We have noted that different scholars use different terms to refer to the same or similar types of research syntheses and sometimes use the same term to refer to larger categories of research synthesis. For example, Shanahan (2001) argues that the following terms can be interchangeable: research synthesis, integrative review, research integration, and literature review. He notes that these terms are all used to refer to “methods of inquiry used to derive generalizations from the collective findings of a body of existing studies” (p. 133).

In contrast, Thorne, Jensen, Kearney, Noblit, and Sandelowski (2004) explicitly distinguish integrative literature reviews from metasyntheses, which they describe as including meta-ethnography, grounded formal theory, and metastudy. Unlike integrative reviews, metasyntheses aspire toward the development of new knowledge through rigorous analysis of the findings from existent qualitative research. Complicating the use of these terms, Samnani, Vaska, Ahmed, and Turin (2017) describe metasynthesis as a review of literature reviews, sometimes referred to as a tertiary review. They then differentiate between various approaches to research synthesis and identify the strengths and weaknesses of each (p. 638).Their categories of research syntheses include literature reviews, scoping reviews, critical reviews, systematic reviews, meta-analyses, mapping analyses, and metasyntheses. Further complicating this discussion of terminology is the fact that meta-review categories are constantly evolving in response to the bodies of research studied, the questions asked, and synthesists’ purposes. This evolution is both unstoppable and potentially productive as it can lead to new possibilities for making sense of large bodies of scholarship

Terms related to research synthesis are further complicated by the possibility of hybrid forms of review. For example, while we did not originate the term “critical integrative literature review” (Thorne et al., 2004), we used this term to refer to our research synthesis published in 2012 (Compton-Lilly, Rogers, & Lewis, 2012). Our review qualifies as an integrative literature reviews because it views a particular phenomenon - family literacy - through a diversity equity lens. We used the term “critical” because we appraised family literacy scholarship in terms of strengths, weaknesses, and gaps related to equity, representation, and bias.

While we were “comprehensive” in searching across databases for reviews of scholarship, we did not refer to the review as “systematic”. In part, this reflected the epistemological frame from which our review was conceived and our resistance to post-positivist claims. However, as discussed in Chapter 4, despite our critical orientation and review of critically oriented scholarship, our process certainly included post-positivistic tendencies (e.g., citation counting). For now, our point is that research synthesists often refer to their reviews using hybrid terminology to capture the purpose and design of the review.

Hart (1998) argued that synthesis involve “making connections between the parts identified in analysis. It is not simply a matter of reassembling the parts back into the original order, but looking for a new order” (p. 110). He continued, writing that syntheses require “a comprehensive knowledge of the subject and the capacity to think in broad terms because a range of viewpoints, methodologies, and stances often require connecting” (p. 110). Thus, research syntheses help scholars to order, name, sequence, integrate, map, story, and conceptualize complex and elusive bodies of knowledge. This is particularly essential when dealing with the unwieldy, inherently complicated, and deeply contextualized situations and experiences that characterize qualitative research. While this book focuses primarily on qualitative research syntheses, it is important to point out that some quantitative syntheses draw on qualitative evidence. Likewise, some qualitative syntheses include quantified qualitative evidence (e.g., citation counting). Thus, the boundaries between qualitative and quantitative are not fixed (Suri, 2014). In addition, all research syntheses have paradigmatic commitments and it is conceivable that both qualitative and quantitative research synthesis could reflect postpositivist, interpretive, critical, or participatory traditions.

Across this volume, we emphasize that the terms used to describe research syntheses are consequential and reference intentions, purposes, and traditions. Thus, it is important for synthesists to understand the landscape of different types of research syntheses. We close this chapter by reflecting on the significance of research syntheses not just for educators, but for scholars across all disciplines, especially scholars pursuing global social justice.

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