Literature Reviews: Beyond the “Gap”

Students who are learning to write literature reviews are often told to look for the “research gap” – that is, the gap that is revealed in the empirical literature on a subject between what we already know and what we need to know. This gap then provides the frame for the writer’s research question and research project. Thus, learning to read and analyze the literature for the research gap is an important skill. Yet, it is not the only way to frame a research question.

A recent opinion piece by Alfie Kohn in The New York Times highlights another way to frame a research question through the empirical literature – interrogating conventional wisdom. Kohn began by discussing the conventional wisdom, heard from many quarters, that today’s children are too easily rewarded, and that unpleasant experiences with failure would better build their resilience and motivate them toward excellence. Kohn then looked for the empirical evidence from the social science literature that would support such claims — and found none. For Kohn, this was then a basis for examining the ideology (socially shared assumptions and values) under the claims.

Kohn’s essay is instructive for scholarly writers. A writer can take the same approach in a scholarly literature review — first identifying conventional wisdom on a subject, and then identifying the research support for the conventional wisdom. If there is little research support, or the research findings are mixed, the writer has a good basis for framing a research question and research project in the gap between what “everyone knows” and what the empirical research says.

Kohn, A. (2014, May 3). Do our kids get off too easy? The New York Times.Retrieved from