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Literature reviews

A Literature Review is a select analysis of existing research which relates to your subject and the question(s) you have chosen. It’s not just a summary of everything you can find which seems relevant; by the end of the review your reader should understand the context of your search and see how it will fit into, and fills a gap in, what is already there.

laptopA ‘stand-alone’ literature review would also include a new interpretation of the existing body of work; a synthesis of the information.

What is its purpose?
  • provides background information needed to understand your study
  • assures your readers that you are familiar with the important research that has been carried out in your area
  • establishes your study as “one link in a chain of research that is developing and enlarging knowledge in your field" (Weissberg & Buker, 1990, p.41).
So – what do you have to do?
  • show that you can identify the key research in your area
  • show that you understand it by organising and evaluating
  • identify a gap in the research and aim to fill it with your piece of work.
What does this really mean in practice? You need to:
  • justify your choice of research question, theoretical or conceptual framework, and method
  • establish the importance of the topic
  • provide background information needed to understand the study
  • show readers you are familiar with significant and/or up-to-date research relevant to the topic
  • establish your study as one link in a chain of research that is developing knowledge in your field
  • identify the ‘gap’ in the research that your study is attempting to address, positioning your work in the context of previous research and creating a ‘research space’ for your work
  • evaluate, critique and synthesise the information in line with the concepts that you have set yourself for the research.
How do you go about it?

Initially, you may read quite broadly round the subject area to further your understanding of the field. This should help you to focus in on your topic and establish the angle that your work will take.

It should also help you to spot that gap and work out how your research will extend and develop the research already carried out.

Girl in Black Jumper Reading BookHowever, remember that the literature review needs to relate to and explain your research question. Although there may seem to be hundreds of sources of information that may seem to be relevant, once you have identified your question you will be able to refine and narrow down the scope of your reading.

In line with this, 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, or a filter funnel.

First, briefly explain the broad issues related to your investigation; 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.

See this series of guides to find out more about literature reviews:

Starting your literature review
Undertaking a literature review 
Developing your literature review 

How do you organise it?

Try using our Framework for your literature review to organise your thoughts in a more critical way. There are several possible approaches, which can be combined (there are others):

  1. organised around key themes or debates
  2. from distant to close; from less specific to more specific
  3. generic knowledge - conceptual framework; understanding of specific context; applying theory to context
  4. a methodological approach, following the different methods used in your field
  5. a chronological approach.
What writing style should you use?

The style used is quite formal and ‘academic’. There is plenty of information to help you with this: Quick Guide to Academic Writing.