Knowledge Mapping for Literature Reviews: A Science of Conceptual Systems Approach

Steven E. Wallis


Research for the purpose of understanding and explaining complex systems often includes a literature review. Regrettably, many students (and even some researchers) find literature reviews challenging for a number of reasons including the difficulty of synthesizing theoretical perspectives, maintaining the review’s relevance to the topic, and providing clear justification of the research project.


This workshop is designed for professors, mentors, and managers who supervise literature reviews as well as the students and scholars who write them. In this workshop, participants will learn:

  • How traditional approaches to literature reviews may lead to the confusion of students and the fragmentation of theory
  • Knowledge mapping (KM) techniques supporting easier and more effective teaching, mentoring, managing, and conducting, of literature reviews
  • A “science of conceptual systems” (SOCS) approach for demonstrating understanding, countering fragmentation, enabling more effective synthesis of theoretical perspectives, clarifying relevance to research project, and justifying research
  • Ways for KM to dovetail with other approaches to managing and conducting literature reviews
  • How this approach supports improvements in actionable understanding and accelerates advancement in any field of study

Avoiding deep philosophical discussion in favour of focusing on the operational “nuts and bolts,” this dynamic workshop includes individual and group exercises, short presentations, and conversations. Participants are encouraged to bring one or two theories which they find interesting or challenging. Due to the limited time available, those theories should be relatively concise – represented in a paragraph or two of text (a set of related propositions), or as a diagram (including concepts and connections). If you do not have a theory, one will be provided for you.

This workshop begins with the understanding that approaches to conducting literature reviews are often systematic (following a specific path), while the theoretical perspectives resulting from those reviews have been unavoidably fragmented because we have lacked an understanding of what it means to have a systemic theoretical perspective of our real world systems. Without highly systemic theories, we are unable to deeply understand our natural systems or to optimize our designed systems.

SOCS research shows that theories that are more systemic are more useful for creating and exchanging knowledge, understanding situations, making decisions, and reaching goals. Importantly, we can measure "how systemic" our theories are, thus providing a relatively objective path for improving the usefulness/effectiveness of our theories.

By representing knowledge graphically as a KM, we can more easily evaluate the systemic structure of that knowledge. That perspective enables students, professors, and dissertation supervisors/mentors to easily identify strengths and weaknesses of theoretical perspectives. We can use those insights, in turn, to focus conversations for improving literature reviews and research, thus supporting more rapid advancements in the field.

This approach has proved interesting to students and researchers, leading to a number of published papers. Additionally, this approach is especially useful for interdisciplinary projects as it supports the synthesis of theories within and between disciplines.

Finally, it is worth considering the place of this systems based approach in the broader context of systems thinking, cybernetics, and related fields. As each field advances, and our understanding of systems becomes more systemic, we can expect this kind of literature review will lead to improvements in the organization of our field’s knowledge. That, in turn, may support improved accessibility of the systems literature, thus accelerating the advancement of our fields.


Integrative Propositional Analysis; Science of Conceptual systems; Literature Review

Full Text:



  • There are currently no refbacks.