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How the Whole Can Be Greater than the Sum of Its Parts

Anthropology in ActionThe below is a special guest post written by Benedicte Carlsen, contributor to Anthropology in Action, Volume 21 (Issue 2), and co-author of ‘Qualitative Research Synthesis: How the Whole Can Be Greater than the Sum of Its Parts.’

This article was conceived as a result of the authors’ shared experiences. All three of us are social anthropologists working in applied and multidisciplinary fields of research. We are increasingly in need of summing up and extracting the accumulated research knowledge in different fields either because we need it as a basis for our own studies or because we are asked to provide a synopsis of current knowledge.


Our experience is part of a trend; the synthesis of individual research studies has become increasingly common, and there are at least two evident explanations for this development: Firstly, ‘Knowledge society’ and the practice of knowledge-based decision-making have led to demands from policy makers and other decision makers for systematic reviews and syntheses of research that depict the state of the art in fields of interest. In addition, while traditional research reviews have been accused of being unsystematic and heuristic, new technology and the Internet have allowed researchers to access the growing amounts of research in ways previously unimaginable.


Thus both policy needs and technological realities have made comprehensive syntheses of existing research evidence both relevant and feasible. As a result, research syntheses have become increasingly important in applied research, especially within the health sciences. However, this methodology has not been adopted with the same enthusiasm in the field of anthropology. We have therefore written an article, where we describe the main principles of synthesizing qualitative research, depict the history of its development, and discuss whether qualitative research synthesis can be seen as compatible with anthropological methodology. Finally, we argue for a greater adoption of research synthesis within applied anthropology and call for a greater engagement from anthropologists in the further development of this methodology.


Click here to read the full article in Anthropology in Action. To get a free 60-day online trial of the journal, click here.