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Common Assignments: Synthesizing Your Sources

Synthesizing Your Sources

To demonstrate your knowledge on a field through a review of literature, the key component is synthesis. To synthesize is to combine independent elements and form a cohesive whole; in essence, your literature review should integrate your sources and

  • Identify patterns
  • Critically discuss strengths and weaknesses of sources or the field
  • Compare and contrast methods, approaches, and findings of authors
  • Evaluate and interpret what is known in your field and what, if anything, is missing

A Metaphor for Synthesis

Imagine you are at a dinner party with other researchers and theorists from your field. Everyone is sitting around the table and discussing the state of your field of research. The beginning portion of your literature review would be similar to those dinner party guests who started the conversation by discussing foundational research and theories. The body of your literature review could take many forms: What guests are agreeing, and which are arguing? What are the debatable issues, and are there any subtopics of those key topics? Does one particular guest keep interrupting the table's conversation? The final portion of your literature review would be similar to the host of the dinner party ending the debate with a comprehensive speech that touches on all opinions yet provides closure for the conversation.

Local and Global Synthesis

When writers synthesize successfully, they present new ideas based on interpretations of other evidence or arguments. In a literature review, it can helpful to think about synthesis occurring at both the local (or paragraph) level and the global (or section/paper) level.

Local Synthesis

Local synthesis occurs at the paragraph level when writers connect individual pieces of evidence from multiple sources to support a paragraph’s main idea and advance a paper’s thesis statement. A common example in academic writing is a scholarly paragraph that includes a main idea, evidence from multiple sources, and analysis of those multiple sources together.

Example: Based on the metaphor above, local synthesis would occur during each individual conversation item. So, if you brought up a single issue within your topic, and several prominent scholars agree, while others disagree, you would represent this debate of a singular issue in that paragraph.

Global Synthesis

Global synthesis occurs at the paper (or, sometimes, section) level when writers connect ideas across paragraphs or sections to create a new narrative whole. In a literature review, which can either stand alone or be a section/chapter within a capstone, global synthesis in integral for cohesion and flow.

Example: Using the same dinner party metaphor, global synthesis occurs when a writer take a birds-eye view of the entire dinner party. What major topics were discussed and how were they linked to other ideas or conversations? What dinner party guests contributed to what ideas? And, finally, where did the guests leave the conversation at the end of the night? A summary of your dinner party, with its multiple guests and discussions, is what ultimately will bring order to major themes within your larger topic.

Tips for creating global synthesis within a literature review:

  • Use thematic headings to create an intentional narrative order.
    • Quick Tip: Create a heading outline to think through which headings should be placed where.
  • Use topic sentences for each paragraph that clearly link ideas between paragraphs.
  • Incorporate appropriate transitions throughout your draft to clearly connect ideas.