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The point of writing a literature review is to introduce the bodies of literature that frame your research. You must summarise the various positions within a body of literature, drawing attention to key ‘voices’ and ideas. Not all these will be in agreement with one another and your goal is to map out the intellectual area, and to define the connection between different key players. Show that you know the key debates within, and differences between, your chosen theories .
Use the following words and phrases to help map out the knowledge domain. They express specific types of relationships between ideas.
on one hand
on the other hand
in line with
explores / investigates
contributes to the research on
enters the debate
re-emphasizes the categories
in agreement with
in opposition to
in confirmation of
in response to
in reaction against
in contrast to
a similar focus/approach/tone
a slightly different focus/approach/tone
a broader scope
a narrower scope
more specific / more general
in the same vein
in a different sphere
revisits the same subject
revolutionizes the field of
bypasses the debate
breaks out of the paradigm
Before we start, let’s note that doodling during the class is encouraged and making mind maps throughout your research is recommended.
In these posts we look closely at the Literature Review and its characteristics. We consider how to structure this chapter which is expected to describe, summarise, evaluate, clarify and/or integrate existing primary or original scholarship by accredited scholars and researchers.
The Literature Review is an early chapter, often placed right after the introduction. It should show the reader, especially your PhD examiners, that you know the field(s) and can identify and critically appraise key texts in an unbiased way. It demonstrates your credibility as a writer. It sets the tone and reassures the examiner that you know your stuff. It is drafted during Year One and then updated as necessary throughout your research. It should shine by the time of submission.
It should be organised around, and related directly to, your thesis or research question. This chapter of your thesis from most other chapters in that you do not introduce your own, new primary scholarship. Nor do you offer your opinion. The focus of a literature review is to summarise and synthesise the arguments and ideas of others without adding new contributions. It often traces the intellectual progression of the field(s) your are reviewing, and it usually describes major debates, showing that you knows the ins and outs, the details of key ideas and texts. This includes a discussion of counter arguments and it is usual to identify areas of controversy in the literature. Your summary and synthesis will lead the reader logically to your explanation of the gap in the literature, to the questions that you have formulated that need further research.
Image by Cayla Buttram, David MacMillan III, & Dr. R.T. Koch, Jr. Updated November 2012 UNA Center for Writing Excellence. See this link.
A literature review is a piece of discursive prose, not a list describing or summarizing one piece of literature after another. Beginning every paragraph with the name of a researcher sends a red flag to a reader or examiner expecting a Literature Review. Organize the literature review into sections according to themes or identify trends and debates, including relevant theory. You are not expected to cover all the material published, but to synthesize and evaluate it according to the guiding concept of your thesis or research question. The literature review is not your opinion. It does provide the foundation on which you will develop and present your opinion/hypothesis with all the expected evidencen subsequent chapters.
If you are writing an annotated bibliography, you may need to summarize each item briefly, but should still follow through themes and concepts and do some critical assessment of material. Use an overall introduction and conclusion to state the scope of your coverage and to formulate the question, problem, or concept your chosen material illuminates. Usually you will have the option of grouping items into sections—this helps you indicate comparisons and relationships. You may be able to write a paragraph or so to introduce the focus of each section.
A literature review is usually organized around ideas, not the sources themselves as an annotated bibliography would be organised. This means that you will not just simply list your sources and go into detail about each one of them, one at a time. As you read widely but selectively in your topic area, consider instead what themes or issues connect your sources together.
- Do they present one or different solutions?
- Is there an aspect of the field that is missing?
- How well do they present the material and do they portray it according to an appropriate theory?
- Do they reveal a trend in the field?
- A raging debate?
- Pick one of these themes to focus the organization of your review.
According to Cooper (1988) “… a literature review uses as its database reports of primary or original scholarship, and does not report new primary scholarship itself. The primary reports used in the literature may be verbal, but in the vast majority of cases reports are written documents. The types of scholarship may be empirical, theoretical, critical/analytic, or methodological in nature. Second a literature review seeks to describe, summarize, evaluate, clarify and/or integrate the content of primary reports.” (My emphasis)
A review of relevant literature is almost always a standard chapter of a thesis or dissertation, though sometimes mini literature reviews may be integrated through several chapters. This less common approach may be found, for example, in some thesis structures based around three published peer-reviewed papers. This compilation based structure for a thesis is more common in some science disciplines. The literature review is an important chapter as it provides the background to, and justification for, the research undertaken (Bruce 1994). Bruce, who has published widely on the topic of the literature review, has identified six elements of a literature review. These elements comprise a list; a search; a survey; a vehicle for learning; a research facilitator; and a report (Bruce 1994).
Cooper, H.M. (1988). Organizing knowledge synthesis: A taxonomy of literature reviews. Knowledge in Society, 1, 104-126.
Bruce, Christine Susan. “Research students’ early experiences of the dissertation literature review.” Studies in Higher Education 19.2 (1994): 217-229.
A summary is a recap of the important information of the source.
A synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information.
It might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations.
It might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates.
It may evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant.
Rather than your opinion, the literature review:
- Discusses published information in a particular subject area.
- Is an account of what has been published on a topic by accredited scholars and
researchers (peer-reviewed texts).
- Sometimes discusses information in a particular subject area within a narrow time period (see this post).
- Is expected to be more than just a simple summary of the sources.
- Usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis.
- Summarises and synthesises the arguments and ideas of others without adding new contributions.
- Can be a handy guide to a particular topic or set of topics.
A literature review must do these things:
a) be organized around and related directly to the thesis or research question
you are developing
b) synthesize results into a summary of what is and is not known
c) identify areas of controversy in the literature
d) formulate questions that need further research
Image from the master of mind maps, Tony Buzan.
Here are some of the questions your literature review should answer:
1. What do we already know in the immediate area concerned?
2. What are the characteristics of the key concepts or the main factors or
3. What are the relationships between these key concepts, factors or variables?
4. What are the existing theories?
5. Where are the inconsistencies or other shortcomings in our knowledge and
6. What views need to be (further) tested?
7. What evidence is lacking, inconclusive, contradictory or too limited?
8. Why study (further) the research problem?
9. What contribution can the present study be expected to make?
10. What research designs or methods seem unsatisfactory?
How to Write a Literature Review, Language Center, Asian Institute of Technology
Image: “First off, by way of establishing some credibility, I’d like to note that…” New Yorker Cartoon by Donald Reilly
Producing this chapter for your thesis enables you to gain and demonstrate skills in two areas:
1. information seeking: the ability to scan the literature efficiently, using manual or computerized methods, to identify a set of useful articles and books
2. critical appraisal: the ability to apply principles of analysis to identify unbiased and valid studies.
The Literature Review emphasizes the credibility of the writer in his or her field. Literature reviews also provide a solid background for a research paper’s investigation.
Often it is comes right after the introduction. It position early in the thesis means that it is an opportunity to establish your credibility early on with the reader and examiner. They are likely to be fresher and less tired than when they first read your later chapters. Get the literature right and you set a positive tone for the rest of the thesis. You want the reader to move on to later chapters feeling confidence in you as a scholar.
For more see Martyn Shuttleworth by following this link.
Some disciplines require that you use information that is as current as possible. In computer science, for instance, an area such as best practice in computer vision is constantly changing according to the latest studies.
In this example, information even two years old could be obsolete. The review should therefore be updated regularly, but it’s still essential to get a draft written early and keep at it, polish your writing technique and use it as a ‘think piece’. But without the personal opinion. A think piece is an article in a newspaper, magazine, or journal presenting personal opinions, analysis, or discussion, rather than bare facts.
However, if you are writing a review in the arts, humanities, history, or social sciences, a survey of the history of the literature may be what is needed, because what is important is how perspectives have changed through the years or within a certain time period. Remember to attend to recent changes in attitude towards historical literature, show the reader that you know the current debate on older texts.