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Literature Review Basics

What is a literature review?

A literature review asks: What do we know - or not know - about this particular issue/ topic/ subject?

A literature review is the process of reading, analyzing, evaluating, and synthesizing scholarly materials about a specific topic. It constitutes a fundamental part of research articles and projects, typically following the introduction section of a research article or the introduction chapter of a thesis.

The purposes of a literature review are to:

  • Place each work discussed in the context of its contribution to understanding the research problem being studied.
  • Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration.
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort.
  • Identify new ways to interpret prior research.
  • Reveal any gaps that exist in the literature.
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies.
  • Identify a need for additional research.
  • Locate your own research within the context of existing research.

How should I organize my literature?

There are many types of literature reviews. Which you choose depends on the type of research you are conducting. Some examples of the types of literature reviews and how to organize them include:

Historical Review

Historical literature reviews focus on examining research throughout a period of time, often starting with the first time an issue, concept, theory, phenomena emerged in the literature, then tracing its evolution within the scholarship of a discipline. The purpose is to place research in a historical context, to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments, and to identify the likely directions for future research.

The organization of a historical review is fairly straightforward. Typically, you discuss your sources in chronological order by date of publication.


Thematic Reviews

There are several types of thematic literature reviews:

Integrative Review - This type of study reviews, critiques, and synthesizes literature on a topic in order to develop new frameworks and perspectives on the topic. The body of literature would include all studies that address related or identical hypotheses or research problems.

Argumentative Review - This type of literature review examines the research to support or refute an argument, deeply imbedded assumption, or philosophical problem already established in the literature.

Theoretical Review - This type of review examines the corpus of theory that has accumulated in regard to an issue, concept, theory, phenomena. The theoretical literature review helps to establish what theories already exist, the relationships between them, to what degree the existing theories have been investigated, and to develop new hypotheses to be tested. Often this form is used to help establish a lack of appropriate theories or reveal that current theories are inadequate for explaining new or emerging research problems.

Systematic Review - The goal of a systemic review is to document, critically evaluate, and summarize scientifically all of the research about a clearly defined research problem. Typically it focuses on a very specific empirical question, often posed in a cause-and-effect form, such as "To what extent does A contribute to B?"

The organization of these varieties of thematic reviews may have some chronological element, but the overall organization is more based on the issues, concepts, or theories being investigated. These sections may be arranged chronologically, if such an organization lends itself to your analysis of the research.


Methodological Review

A review does not always focus on what someone said [findings], but how they came about saying what they say [method of analysis]. Methods of analysis that you might analyze include quantitative and qualitative integration, sampling, interviewing, data collection, and data analysis. This approach helps highlight ethical issues which you should be aware of and consider as you go through your own study.

The methodological review would be organized base on the differences in methodology of the studies researched.