Writing a literature review seems to be a bit more difficult than first imagined by students. Part of this may be due to the writing experience that students bring with them to the project. What types of papers have you written before? Book reviews? Essays? Critiques? Have you ever tried to synthesize the literature (both theoretical and empirical) regarding some subject before?
Basic tools for writing are the same (such as style) but the goal of a literature review in a research paper is somewhat different from other types of writing. The goal is to bring together what is "known" to sociologists about your research topic in a way that sets up the "need" for your specific research. You will be looking for unanswered questions, or gaps in the knowledge. You might want to test established ideas on new populations or test a theory using variables measured in different ways. But you need to always keep in mind the following question: "how will my research take our understanding a step further?"
There are two basic parts to doing a literature review. One is to collect information on your topic. The other is writing the literature review. You've probably been to the library and looked up sociology journals by now. You've most likely had several courses in general sociology and in specialized courses. Maybe you've even had a course in theory. So you have access to a wealth of information. But how do you go through it and make sense of it "one the whole?" And how do you do this keeping in mind that the end of this review will convince the reader that your research is going to add something new? Below are a set of questions that may help you synthesize the information in a way that will help you write the literature review.
These questions are only a guide-some suggestions of issues to keep in mind as you read the texts you've accumulated. You will not need to address ALL of these questions in your literature review.
Some research is done to test theoretically informed hypotheses, while other research is designed to explore relationships. Either way, most research has some basic questions about why something varies: why do some adolescents use drugs while others do not? Why do some couples get divorced and others do not? What determines the number of children women have? Why do some people earn higher salaries than others? What leads to success in college? The dependent variable in the examples above are (in order): adolescent drug use; divorce; fertility; earnings; academic success.
The first thing you should consider is what is the status of the dependent variable? How many adolescents are reported to have used drugs? Have these rates increased lately? What is the current divorce rate? Has it changed? Are rates variable across regions of the country? If variations exist, this might provide a case for your research.
This is sometimes the most difficult part for undergraduates, but of course it is the most important question. Most of you have had a course or two that introduced you to the dominant paradigms in the discipline. But you may not have applied them to your specific research question. In this case, you will have to do some searching. You may find that some theories are discussed in the empirical literature, but not always. So you might want to check out the books used in related classes in sociology. For example, check out the books assigned for the deviance or juvenile delinquency courses. Or, you might think about making an appointment with your advisor or a faculty member in the area of your research to ask for help.
When reading through the literature, it is very important to make a note of just who was studied. If you are studying adolescents you'll want to make sure that you try to locate theories and research on appropriate age groups. This doesn't mean that research on adults (or any population that is different than the one you study) is not useful, but you do need to think about how relationships differ across groups of people.
Varying populations is one of the most common reasons for doing additional research on a topic. If sociologists have been studying primarily urban populations, you might want to see if relationships are similar in more rural settings. You might want to see if theories developed on adult populations work for teens. But remember, you really need to think sociologically about this. Why might you expect relationships to varying across regions or age groups?
Another reason for doing research is that you have a new way of looking at your variable(s) of interest. Previous research may focus on attitudes about something (say divorce) and you want to look at a related behavior (whether or not couples actually divorce). Another example comes from research on drug use. Let's say you want to understand why adolescents drink alcohol. There are many ways you can operationalize alcohol use. One way is to know whether or not adolescents have "ever tried" alcohol. Another is "how many times" in the past week or month or year. Still another way to explore alcohol use is to know "how many drinks are consumed on one occasion. You must first decide specifically what you want to research (maybe you did this in answering question number one), then be attentive to how the concept has been measured in previous research.
This will also be true for your independent variables. Let's say you want to see how the division of household labor affects the level of satisfaction that a person has with their partner. You will find research that measures the division of household labor by asking "who does more-you or your partner?" Other research elicits direct time estimates of domestic activity (how many hours per week spent in cleaning, for example). The first measure will allow a general test of the hypothesis: a person is happier when tasks are shared. The direst time estimates will allow for a couple of assessments. One is the issue of just how much time someone spends doing housework. The more time, the more unhappy. But combing estimates of both partners time allows for a more specific test of the first hypothesis: the greater the inequity, the more unhappy a person is. A 60-40 split may not make a difference for some, but an 80-20 split in responsibility seems more unfair.
Pay attention to how authors have explained these variations. The point is that how variables are measured can lead to the testing of very different hypotheses. You'll want to be aware of variation in measurement in the literature you read.
You may already have addressed this question somewhat in answering number one above. You may notice that adolescent alcohol use has actually declined, while use of other drugs has increased. This would lead you to doing additional research to understand and explain why these declines in use have occurred.
Recall from discussions of causality in social science that we try to do three things: show a correlation between two variables, establish a time ordering, and control for variables suspected of explaining away observed correlations. You may want to think about how theories you are familiar with would point you to control for certain variables (gender, social class, ethnicity, education).
As you read through the literature and think about the questions above, you will start to notice differences between what you intended to do and what has been done. Some of those differences may actually lead you to change your plans. But other differences are what make your research unique or different. They may be small, such as doing your research on a local community instead of a regional one. Or you may be operationalizing some of your variables differently. But small or large, these variations make additions to the literature. The most challenging part will be when you try to theorize what difference it makes.
You now have a lot of ideas about what is known on your topic and how your particular research fits in. What's next? There is no set standard for writing up your literature review. Everyone has their own way of getting from point to point. So what follows is one suggested outline. It assumes that you've thought about all seven questions above. See how it works and think about how to make transitions between sections. You will need to find what's most comfortable for you.
I. Description of the dependent variable. What is the incidence of it and what has been the major concern by sociologists in studying it. Why are you interested in studying it?
II Description of the main sociological theories that address the topic.
A. Summary of research done using one theory. This could also be a summary of research finding that X is related to Y. Be sure to group articles together by writing points. If several articles have found that X affects Y, just make the substantive point once and cite all articles.
B. Critiques of that theory, or set of relationships, with a discussion of research that differs.
C. Summary of research done using another theory or set of variables.
D. Critiques of that approach.
III Summary of what is known and the "problem" with it.
IV What your research will do to expand our knowledge or fill a gap in the literature.
A literature review is both a summary and explanation of the complete and current state of knowledge on a limited topic as found in academic books and journal articles. There are two kinds of literature reviews you might write at university: one that students are asked to write as a stand-alone assignment in a course, often as part of their training in the research processes in their ﬁeld, and the other that is written as part of an introduction to, or preparation for, a longer work, usually a thesis or research report. The focus and perspective of your review and the kind of hypothesis or thesis argument you make will be determined by what kind of review you are writing. One way to understand the differences between these two types is to read published literature reviews or the ﬁrst chapters of theses and dissertations in your own subject area. Analyse the structure of their arguments and note the way they address the issues.
Purpose of the Literature Review
- It gives readers easy access to research on a particular topic by selecting high quality articles or studies that are relevant, meaningful, important and valid and summarizing them into one complete report
- It provides an excellent starting point for researchers beginning to do research in a new area by forcing them to summarize, evaluate, and compare original research in that speciﬁc area
- It ensures that researchers do not duplicate work that has already been done
- It can provide clues as to where future research is heading or recommend areas on which to focus
- It highlights key ﬁndings
- It identiﬁes inconsistencies, gaps and contradictions in the literature
- It provides a constructive analysis of the methodologies and approaches of other researchers
Content of the Review
The introduction explains the focus and establishes the importance of the subject. It discusses what kind of work has been done on the topic and identiﬁes any controversies within the ﬁeld or any recent research which has raised questions about earlier assumptions. It may provide background or history. It concludes with a purpose or thesis statement. In a stand-alone literature review, this statement will sum up and evaluate the state of the art in this ﬁeld of research; in a review that is an introduction or preparatory to a thesis or research report, it will suggest how the review ﬁndings will lead to the research the writer proposes to undertake.
Often divided by headings/subheadings, the body summarizes and evaluates the current state of knowledge in the ﬁeld. It notes major themes or topics, the most important trends, and any ﬁndings about which researchers agree or disagree. If the review is preliminary to your own thesis or research project, its purpose is to make an argument that will justify your proposed research. Therefore, it will discuss only that research which leads directly to your own project.
The conclusion summarizes all the evidence presented and shows its signiﬁcance. If the review is an introduction to your own research, it highlights gaps and indicates how previous research leads to your own research project and chosen methodology. If the review is a stand-alone assignment for a course, it should suggest any practical applications of the research as well as the implications and possibilities for future research.
Nine Steps To Writing A Literature Review
1. Find a Working Topic
Look at your speciﬁc area of study. Think about what interests you, and what is fertile ground for study. Talk to your professor, brainstorm, and read lecture notes and recent issues of periodicals in the ﬁeld.
2. Review the Literature
- Using keywords, search a computer database. It is best to use at least two databases relevant to your discipline
- Remember that the reference lists of recent articles and reviews can lead to valuable papers
- Make certain that you also include any studies contrary to your point of view
3. Focus Your Topic Narrowly and Select Papers Accordingly
Consider the following:
- What interests you?
- What interests others?
- What time span of research will you consider?
Choose an area of research that is due for a review.
4. Read the Selected Articles Thoroughly and Evaluate Them
- What assumptions do most/some researchers seem to be making?
- What methodologies do they use? what testing procedures, subjects, material tested?
- Evaluate and synthesize the research ﬁndings and conclusions drawn
- Note experts in the ﬁeld: names/labs that are frequently referenced
- Note conﬂicting theories, results, methodologies
- Watch for popularity of theories and how this has/has not changed over time
5. Organize the Selected Papers By Looking For Patterns and By Developing Subtopics
Note things such as:
- Findings that are common/contested
- Two or three important trends in the research
- The most inﬂuential theories
6. Develop a Working Thesis
Write a one or two sentence statement summarizing the conclusion you have reached about the major trends and developments you see in the research that has been done on your subject.
7. Organize Your Own Paper Based on the Findings From Steps 4 & 5
Develop headings/subheadings. If your literature review is extensive, ﬁnd a large table surface, and on it place post-it notes or ﬁling cards to organize all your ﬁndings into categories. Move them around if you decide that (a) they ﬁt better under different headings, or (b) you need to establish new topic headings.
8. Write the Body of the Paper
Follow the plan you have developed above, making certain that each section links logically to the one before and after, and that you have divided your sections by themes or subtopics, not by reporting the work of individual theorists or researchers.
9. Look At What You Have Written; Focus On Analysis, Not Description
Look at the topic sentences of each paragraph. If you were to read only these sentences, would you ﬁnd that your paper presented a clear position, logically developed, from beginning to end? If, for example, you ﬁnd that each paragraph begins with a researcher's name, it might indicate that, instead of evaluating and comparing the research literature from an analytical point of view, you have simply described what research has been done. This is one of the most common problems with student literature reviews. So if your paper still does not appear to be deﬁned by a central, guiding concept, or if it does not critically analyse the literature selected, then you should make a new outline based on what you have said in each section and paragraph of the paper, and decide whether you need to add information, to delete off-topic information, or to restructure the paper entirely.
For example, look at the following two passages and note that Student A is merely describing the literature and Student B takes a more analytical and evaluative approach, by comparing and contrasting. You can also see that this evaluative approach is well signalled by linguistic markers indicating logical connections (words such as "however," "moreover") and phrases such as "substantiates the claim that," which indicate supporting evidence and Student B's ability to synthesize knowledge.
Smith (2000) concludes that personal privacy in their living quarters is the most important factor in nursing home residents' perception of their autonomy. He suggests that the physical environment in the more public spaces of the building did not have much impact on their perceptions. Neither the layout of the building, nor the activities available seem to make much difference. Jones and Johnstone make the claim that the need to control one's environment is a fundamental need of life (2001), and suggest that the approach of most institutions, which is to provide total care, may be as bad as no care at all. If people have no choices or think that they have none, they become depressed.
After studying residents and staff from two intermediate care facilities in Calgary, Alberta, Smith (2000) came to the conclusion that except for the amount of personal privacy available to residents, the physical environment of these institutions had minimal if any effect on their perceptions of control (autonomy). However, French (1998) and Haroon (2000) found that availability of private areas is not the only aspect of the physical environment that determines residents' autonomy. Haroon interviewed 115 residents from 32 different nursing homes known to have different levels of autonomy (2000). It was found that physical structures, such as standardized furniture, heating that could not be individually regulated, and no possession of a house key for residents limited their feelings of independence. Moreover, Hope (2002), who interviewed 225 residents from various nursing homes, substantiates the claim that characteristics of the institutional environment such as the extent of resources in the facility, as well as its location, are features which residents have indicated as being of great importance to their independence.
Finishing Touches: Revising and Editing Your Work
- Read your work out loud. That way you will be better able to identify where you need punctuation marks to signal pauses or divisions within sentences, where you have made grammatical errors, or where your sentences are unclear
- Since the purpose of a literature review is to demonstrate that the writer is familiar with the important professional literature on the chosen subject, check to make certain that you have covered all of the important, up-to-date, and pertinent texts. In the sciences and some of the social sciences it is important that your literature be quite recent; this is not so important in the humanities
- Make certain that all of the citations and references are correct and that you are referencing in the appropriate style for your discipline. If you are uncertain which style to use, ask your professor
- Check to make sure that you have not plagiarized either by failing to cite a source of information, or by using words quoted directly from a source. (Usually if you take three or more words directly from another source, you should put those words within quotation marks, and cite the page.)
- Text should be written in a clear and concise academic style; it should not be descriptive in nature or use the language of everyday speech
- There should be no grammatical or spelling errors
- Sentences should ﬂow smoothly and logically
- In a paper in the sciences, or in some of the social sciences, the use of subheadings to organize the review is recommended