How to write a literature review

Yesterday, I was talking to a dissertation supervisee about what’s expected in the obligatory literature review. I had a similar conversation last week. I realised a little while ago that you can’t get a literature review right if you don’t know why you’re being required to do it – and that the point of doing a literature review is slightly obscure. This morning when I walked into my office and saw my notes still on the whiteboard, it occurred to me that it might be helpful to set down my thoughts on the matter somewhere slightly more permanent. Hence this blog post.

It’s basically just three lists of questions that you should probably think about answering for every single item of literature (article, book, chapter, etc) that you review. They’re the same regardless of whether you’re an undergraduate, master’s, or PhD student, and they should apply to pretty much any discipline that I’m aware of. Which list you use for each item of literature depends on why you’re reviewing the item in question, but thinking about which list is most appropriate should help you to figure that out if you’re not sure. By the time you come to actually submit your work, you’ll probably want to cut down what you wrote depending on how interesting the answers to the questions actually turned out to be. However, it will help you enormously if you’ve got them all written out in full in a draft somewhere.

So each time you come to an item for review, it’s a matter of whether you’re writing…

You might, of course, end up answering more than one list of questions in relation to a particularly important item of literature. Note that only the first two questions in each list are necessary if you’re writing a ‘standalone’ literature review or annotated bibliography, i.e. if it won’t be forming part of a larger piece of writing that aims to answer research questions of its own.

So now to those lists.

A review of an item of literature that is relevant to your project because of something that its author(s) found out

This is what you write when you’re researching a particular topic and you want to establish what’s already known (or believed) about that topic (or related topics, especially if your exact topic hasn’t been researched very much in the past). If you’re working in an empirical discipline, you’ll probably be using questions from this list quite a lot.

  1. What did the author(s) of the item do?
  2. What did the author(s) find out by doing that – and how robust (reliable) are their findings (bearing in mind how those findings were arrived at)?
  3. Assuming the findings to be an accurate reflection of how the world really is, what would those findings lead you to expect the answers to your own research questions to be?

A review of an item of literature that is relevant to your project because of the way in which the author(s) found out what they found out

This is what you write when you’re going to use a particular methodology and you want to know how other people have used the same methodology (or related ones) and what problems this has created or solved. If you’re working in a science or social science discipline, you might need to write quite a few of these; in the humanities, that’s less likely (unless you’re doing something relatively unusual or controversial).

  1. What did the author(s) of the item do to find out what they found out?
  2. What can we learn from the item about the effectiveness and reliability of this way of finding things out?
  3. Bearing that in mind, will you be trying to find things out in the same way that the author(s) tried to find things out, or is there something that you can see that you perhaps ought to do differently?

A review of an item of literature that is relevant to your project because of something that its author(s) argue or assert (but didn’t exactly find out)

This is what you write when you want to justify the starting point for your research, or the way in which you’re going to interpret your findings. It’s also what you write when you want to support or to challenge findings, methodologies, or arguments from other items you have reviewed. If you’re working in a theoretical or interpretative discipline or writing a purely theoretical paper in an empirical discipline, it’s possible that these might be the only questions you need.

  1. What do the author(s) of the item argue or assert?
  2. How persuasive do you judge that argument to be, and on what grounds do you make that judgement? (If the author(s) make an assertion without arguing for it, then you should take note of that)
  3. Should the argument or assertion lead us to think differently about something of relevance to your research questions?
  4. Additional question to answer if you are doing empirical or practical work: Will you be doing anything differently in response to the argument or assertion?

And if none of the above applies…

If there’s an item of literature mentioned in your literature review but you didn’t answer any of the above questions about it, then you might want to ask yourself what it’s doing there. Perhaps it’s there for a reason that I haven’t considered above. Or perhaps it just turned out not to be relevant to your project. If the former is the case, you’ll need to think of your own questions to answer. If the latter is the case, then leave it out of the final draft. ‘Look! I read a thing!’ is not a good enough reason to include an item in a literature review.

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