Literature Reviews

One of the first tasks for the dissertation is gain a thorough awareness of current work and perspectives on your topic so that you can ‘position your own research clearly on the academic map of knowledge creation’ (Ridley, 2008:1). This normally takes the form of a literature review chapter in your dissertation (On some courses, you may be asked to submit this prior to handing in your final project). Although the practices involved in writing a literature review will be familiar (research, critical reading and writing) the format is unique and can be tricky to grasp. The answers to the following questions should help you start thinking about how to research and write your literature review:

There is little point in reinventing the wheel. Whatever your research topic, the work that you do is not done in a vacuum but builds on the ideas of other people who have studied the subject before you. A literature review requires you to describe what has been published on your topic and to organise the information in a relevant and criticalway (Jankowitz, 2005). It should provide the context within which your study is situated and show how your work will address a gap in knowledge.

To help you think about the purpose of the literature review, these are some of the questions your literature review may cover:

  • What are the key sources?
  • What are the key concepts, theories and ideas?
  • What are the main questions and problems that have been addressed to date?
  • How is knowledge on the topic structured and organised?
  • What are the origins and definitions of the topic?
  • What are the political standpoints?
  • What are the major issues and debates about the topic?
  • Adapted from Hart (1998)

    It might seem as if you have a lot of time to complete your dissertation but there are a number of tasks involved that can take longer than you think. It is important to pick a topic that is specific and manageable enough to be answerable in the timeframe. Consider whether you have access to what you need to complete the research – this could include the co-operation of individuals/organisation essential to your project or access to documents or specialist equipment.

    A literature review should not:

    – Include everything you have read on your subject – a literature review needs to be selective. It should only include published attempts to answer your question or related aspects of your question.

    – Be a book-by-book, article-by-article summary. A good literature review does not simply describe the research you have read but instead will ‘weave these contributions together in a logical, systematic way, to develop an argument or tell a story’ (Jesson et.al, 2011:15).

    Before you start researching your topic, spend some time preparing in order to avoid wasting time on reading irrelevant or unrelated materials.

    Start by identifying what you will need to know about your research topic:

    • What research has already been done on this topic?
    • What are the sub-areas of the topic you need to explore?
    • What other research (perhaps not directly on the topic) might be relevant to your investigation?
    • How do these sub-topics and other research overlap with your investigation?

    Write down your initial thoughts and be creative! A mind-map can be a useful way to group related research and ideas together.
    Make sure that you are documenting your sources so that you can refer back to them later!
    Adapted from the University of Reading (2013)

    There are a number of ways you might structure your review and this often depends on the nature of your topic. If you are looking at change over time you may present your review chronologically (though you would still need to make connections between related arguments to avoid it being just descriptive). Or, if you are interested in the way the research has been conducted, you may group studies methodologically e.g. qualitative/quantitative. However, the most common approach is to group your ideas together thematically. For example, if your topic is about International Approaches to Human Rights you may have sections on each country you are focusing on.

    Most literature reviews have sub-headings to help group the relevant research into themes or topics. This gives a focus to your analysis, as you can group similar studies together and compare and contrast their approaches, any weaknesses or strengths in their methods, and their findings.
    One common way to approach a literature review is to start out broad and then become more specific. Think of it as an inverted triangle:

    • First briefly explain the broad issues related to your topic; you don’t need to write much about this, just demonstrate that you are aware of the breadth of your subject.
    • Then narrow your focus to deal with the studies that overlap with your research.
    • Finally, hone in on any research which is directly related to your specific investigation. Proportionally you spend most time discussing those studies which have most direct relevance to your research

    Also, look at other literature reviews in the field that you are writing your dissertaion in. There are many accessible online, and they will give you a good example of how to strcture your own.

    Adapted from the University of Reading (2013)

    Your literature review should not simply describe what you have read but instead tell the reader what the research found and why this is important to your research. This involves thinking, reading and writing critically about the related research in your field. In your review, this could include:

    • Comparing and contrasting different theories, concepts and terminology from the related literature and indicating the position/view you are taking in your own research
    • Strategic and selective referencing to support the underpinning arguments which form the basis of your research
    • Synthesising and reformulating arguments from several sources to create a new or more developed point of view
    • Agreeing with, confirming or defending a finding or point of view through an analysis of its merits add limitations
    • Arguing that an existing point of view has some strengths but highlighting weaknesses or room for improvement
    • Rejecting a point of view and giving reasons for that rejection e.g. lack of evidence, fallacies in the argument.
    • Concluding that whilst existing research has its strengths and weaknesses, it lacks focus on the specific area which you plan to research

    The above tips have been informed by the following study guides:

    • Hart, C. (1998) Doing a Literature Review London: Sage Publications
    • Jankowitz, A. D. (2005) Business Research Projects 4th edition. London: Thompson.
    • Jesson, J., Matheson, L. & Lacey, F.M. (2011) Doing your Literature Review: Traditional and Systematic Techniques. London: Sage.
    • Ridley, D. (2008) The Literature Review: A Step-by-Step Guide for Students. London: Sage.
    • University of Reading (2013) Undertaking a Literature Review. [Accessed 17.05.13].

    Video guide on Writing a Literature Review developed by Western University

    ASK study advice on reading and research

    University of Reading guide to writing a literature review