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REL Senior Seminar: Using information

What is a literature review

Naturally, you will be analyzing sources and data using your own, original interpretations, but every topic has been addressed before by the scholars that came before you. To demonstrate your understanding of that previous scholarship, most research papers include a literature review. A literature review surveys scholarly articles, books and other sources relevant to your particular issue, area of research, or theory, and by so doing, providing a description, summary, and critical evaluation of these works. Literature reviews are designed to provide an overview of sources you have explored while researching a particular topic and to demonstrate to your readers how your research fits into the larger field of study.

A literature review involves much more than just a summary of the included sources. While it can be a summary of sources on a certain subject, more often it takes a critical, evaluative approach, showing the relationships between the various writings and how they relate to your own work. A good literature review will look at the research that has been done and synthesize or pull together those elements that are similar or most pertinent to the theme you have chosen.

A well written literature review:

  • Places each work in the context of its contribution to the understanding of the subject under review
  • Describes the relationship of each work to the others under consideration
  • Identifies new ways to interpret, and shed light on any gaps in, previous research
  • Resolves conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies
  • Identifies areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort
  • Points the way forward for further research
  • Places one's original work (in the case of theses or dissertations) in the context of existing literature

What is the value of the literature review?

A well written literature review demonstrates that you have not only thoroughly researched your topic but also carefully examined and critically evaluated the range of relevant resources.

Much more than a simple list of sources, an effective literature review:

  1. Helps you discover what has been written about a topic already.
  2. Helps you remain current in the field.
  3. Helps you determine what each source contributes to a topic.
  4. Teaches you how to analyze and synthesize information about the key themes and the relationships between the various contributions within a specific body of scholarship, and (if possible) to reveal contradictions, or unanswered questions needing further study.
  5. Places your research within a larger body of work and shows how your research seeks to fill in a gap, or extend, the knowledge that has already been written in a specific area of study.

Questions a literature review may answer:

  • What's been written on this topic area to date?
  • Which are the important works?
  • On which particular areas of the topic has previous research concentrated?
  • What are the significant discoveries, key concepts, arguments, and/or theories that scholars have put forward?
  • What methodologies have been used?
  • Have there been developments over time?
  • Where are the inconsistencies or other shortcomings in our knowledge and understanding of the topic?
  • Are there any gaps in the research?
  • Are there areas that haven't been looked at closely yet, but which should be?
  • Are there new ways of looking at the topic?
  • Are there improved methodologies for researching this subject?
  • What future directions should research in this subject take?
  • How will your research build on or depart from current and previous research on the topic?

The Five C's of a Literature Review

The "five C’s" of writing a literature review:

  • Cite, so as to keep the primary focus on the literature pertinent to your research problem.
  • Compare the various arguments, theories, methodologies, and findings expressed in the literature: what do the authors agree on? Who applies similar approaches to analyzing the research problem?
  • Contrast the various arguments, themes, methodologies, approaches, and controversies expressed in the literature: what are the major areas of disagreement, controversy, or debate?
  • Critique the literature: Which arguments are more persuasive, and why? Which approaches, findings, methodologies seem most reliable, valid, or appropriate, and why? Pay attention to the verbs you use to describe what an author says/does [e.g., asserts, demonstrates, argues, etc.].
  • Connect the literature to your own area of research and investigation: how does your own work draw upon, depart from, synthesize, or add a new perspective to what has been said in the literature?

What are the steps in writing a literature review?

  1. Choose a well-defined topic, issue, or problem that you want to explore.
  2. Research: to discover what has been written about the topic.
    • Identify and find the “big names” and best publications in the research area.
    • Conduct an online literature search using library databases.
    • Look in bibliographies of the most recent books and journal articles.
  3. Critical Appraisal: to evaluate the literature, determine the relationship between the sources and ascertain what has been done already and what still needs to be done.
  4. Writing: to explain what you have found.

Organize and synthesize your findings

Your synthesis can be done in a number of different ways:

  • Chronological: One of the easiest ways to structure the literature review is to discuss the works in the order in which they were published. In a chronological review you would discuss the earliest works and then gradually work your way logically through time to the references that are most recent.
  • Thematic: Thematic reviews of literature are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time. In a thematic review, you will group and discuss your sources in terms of the themes or topics they cover. This method is often a stronger one organizationally, and it can help you resist the urge to summarize your sources. By grouping themes or topics of research together, you will be able to demonstrate the types of topics that are important to your research. It is very important, however, that while you keep the themes discrete, you still link them together in your literature review by the things they share in common.
  • Methodological: A methodological approach differs from the two above in that the focusing factor usually does not have to do with the content of the material. Instead, it focuses on the “methods” used by the researcher(s) or writer(s).
  • Theoretical: The theoretical literature review help 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 approach is used to help establish a lack of appropriate theories or reveal that current theories are inadequate for explaining new or emerging research problems. The unit of analysis can focus on a theoretical concept or a whole theory or framework.

No matter which method you choose, remember:  Within each section of a literature review, it is important to discuss how the research relates to other studies (how is it similar or different, what other studies have been done, etc.) as well as to demonstrate how it relates to your own work. This is what the review is for: don’t leave this connection out!