Literature Review, meet personal knowledge…

By Heather Sutherland.

Perhaps the key, primary stress of the first year of doctoral study is about ‘literature reviewing’. “I’m working on my literature review” is the only identical phrase I’ve heard from peers across all subject areas, before they head off into their various quantitative or qualitative or mixed-method data-gathering phases. Whilst research topics may have initial basis in a person’s sphere of interest, it is the literature review that contextualises that interest, ‘surveying the land’ as it were, identifying the thematic areas informing the research question(s) and the gap(s) the researcher intends to fill, crucially, overall, justifying their research question. My question is, where the researcher has personal experience of the topic under review, to what extent can their personal knowledge add to the literature review, and thus contribute to a justification of the research question(s)?

Mother’s Day 2017 just passed (in the UK). Nothing remarkably unusual about that, given its ‘annual celebration’ status. Yet, it is not a universally loved day. There are those affected by poor familial relationships and/or loss for whom the day is highly emotional in a more negative manner. For those bereaved by suicide, the day can be immensely upsetting, with those who have lost a child or a mother no less than suffering and enduring the day. It can also, perhaps a bit unexpectedly to those not affected, be a highly problematic day for left-behind siblings; a day of anxiety revolving around feeling helpless in the face of their mother’s pain, trying to work out how to mark the day in a way or with a gift that both honours their lost sibling but does not increase upset. It can be a mine-field of a day in terms of the emotional state of siblings, who may feel a need to back-seat themselves, as the perception is it is not their place to say anything or show their own grief on a day specifically referring to mothers.

From a researcher’s perspective, the day is clearly significant in gaining insight into the effects of sibling suicide-loss – it would be both important and relevant to include a question on the interview schedule about what this day means to them personally. (There are also methodological implications, i.e. researcher decision-making regarding when might be essential to avoid in terms of interview dates, to respect that this day can be a major problem emotionally.) Yet, how to highlight this in the ‘literature review’? There is a woman I respect greatly, who heads a suicide bereavement and prevention charity, who describes herself as a ‘T-shirt-wearer’. She uses this term in public addresses and talks that she gives to many, many varieties of audiences. It gives her authority. Yet, I can’t help having the sense that this is not the same case within academic endeavour. I do have the impression that drawing on personal knowledge does not carry the same weight, and needs further (published) justification. The issue, then, becomes where are ideas that inform the research allowed to come from in academia? I know Mother’s Day is an issue for some siblings bereaved by suicide, and I know there are ripple implications for the emotions and actions on Father’s Day later in the year, but I don’t have literature to aid me in that discussion* – does that cause problems in including this aspect and its associated issues in the contextual text for my thesis? I don’t yet have the answer to this question, but I will be aiming to make a case for ‘personal knowledge inclusion’ by the time of literature-review-final-draft….

*(And if anyone does have literature tips/names on this aspect, please do get in touch!)


This blog was originally published at PhD Squared and was re-blogged at netECR with the author’s permission.



Heather Sutherland (@HermanaMam) completed a PhD in media history and post-doctoral research in the field of Performance. She is currently doing a second PhD researching ‘adult-sibling suicide loss’ at Newcastle University ( She also holds an NIHR Research Fellow position within a project examining Rolandic Epilepsy based at Edge Hill University (


Cover photo by Green Chameleon on UnsplashGreen Chameleon

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