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.
I. Thinking About Your Literature Review
The structure of a literature review should include the following:
- An overview of the subject, issue, or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review,
- Division of works under review into themes or categories [e.g. works that support a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative approaches entirely],
- An explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others,
- Conclusions as to which pieces are best considered in their argument, are most convincing of their opinions, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research.
The critical evaluation of each work should consider:
- Provenance -- what are the author's credentials? Are the author's arguments supported by evidence [e.g. primary historical material, case studies, narratives, statistics, recent scientific findings]?
- Methodology -- were the techniques used to identify, gather, and analyze the data appropriate to addressing the research problem? Was the sample size appropriate? Were the results effectively interpreted and reported?
- Objectivity -- is the author's perspective even-handed or prejudicial? Is contrary data considered or is certain pertinent information ignored to prove the author's point?
- Persuasiveness -- which of the author's theses are most convincing or least convincing?
- Value -- are the author's arguments and conclusions convincing? Does the work ultimately contribute in any significant way to an understanding of the subject?
II. Development of the Literature Review
1. Problem formulation -- which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues?
2. Literature search -- finding materials relevant to the subject being explored.
3. Data evaluation -- determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic.
4. Analysis and interpretation -- discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature.
Consider the following issues before writing the literature review:
If your assignment is not very specific about what form your literature review should take, seek clarification from your professor by asking these questions:
1. Roughly how many sources should I include?
2. What types of sources should I review (books, journal articles, websites; scholarly versus popular sources)?
3. Should I summarize, synthesize, or critique sources by discussing a common theme or issue?
4. Should I evaluate the sources?
5. Should I provide subheadings and other background information, such as definitions and/or a history?
Use the exercise of reviewing the literature to examine how authors in your discipline or area of interest have composed their literature review sections. Read them to get a sense of the types of themes you might want to look for in your own research or to identify ways to organize your final review. The bibliography or reference section of sources you've already read are also excellent entry points into your own research.
Narrow the Topic
The narrower your topic, the easier it will be to limit the number of sources you need to read in order to obtain a good survey of relevant resources. Your professor will probably not expect you to read everything that's available about the topic, but you'll make your job easier if you first limit scope of the research problem. A good strategy is to begin by searching the HOMER catalog for books about the topic and review the table of contents for chapters that focuses on specific issues. You can also review the indexes of books to find references to specific issues that can serve as the focus of your research. For example, a book surveying the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may include a chapter on the role Egypt has played in mediating the conflict, or look in the index for the pages where Egypt is mentioned in the text.
Consider Whether Your Sources are Current
Some disciplines require that you use information that is as current as possible. This is particularly true in disciplines in medicine and the sciences where research conducted becomes obsolete very quickly as new discoveries are made. However, when writing a review in the social sciences, a survey of the history of the literature may be required. In other words, a complete understanding the research problem requires you to deliberately examine how knowledge and perspectives have changed over time. Sort through other current bibliographies or literature reviews in the field to get a sense of what your discipline expects. You can also use this method to explore what is considered by scholars to be a "hot topic" and what is not.
III. Ways to Organize Your Literature Review
Chronology of Events
If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials according to when they were published. This approach should only be followed if a clear path of research building on previous research can be identified and that these trends follow a clear chronological order of development. For example, a literature review that focuses on continuing research about the emergence of German economic power after the fall of the Soviet Union.
Order your sources by publication chronology, then, only if the order demonstrates a more important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on environmental studies of brown fields if the progression revealed, for example, a change in the soil collection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies.
Thematic [“conceptual categories”]
Thematic reviews of literature are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time. However, progression of time may still be an important factor in a thematic review. For example, a review of the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics could focus on the development of online political satire. While the study focuses on one topic, the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics, it will still be organized chronologically reflecting technological developments in media. The only difference here between a "chronological" and a "thematic" approach is what is emphasized the most: the role of the Internet in presidential politics. Note however that more authentic thematic reviews tend to break away from chronological order. A review organized in this manner would shift between time periods within each section according to the point made.
A methodological approach focuses on the methods utilized by the researcher. For the Internet in American presidential politics project, one methodological approach would be to look at cultural differences between the portrayal of American presidents on American, British, and French websites. Or the review might focus on the fundraising impact of the Internet on a particular political party. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed.
Other Sections of Your Literature Review
Once you've decided on the organizational method for your literature review, the sections you need to include in the paper should be easy to figure out because they arise from your organizational strategy. In other words, a chronological review would have subsections for each vital time period; a thematic review would have subtopics based upon factors that relate to the theme or issue. However, sometimes you may need to add additional sections that are necessary for your study, but do not fit in the organizational strategy of the body. What other sections you include in the body is up to you but include only what is necessary for the reader to locate your study within the larger scholarship framework.
Here are examples of other sections you may need to include depending on the type of review you write:
- Current Situation: information necessary to understand the topic or focus of the literature review.
- History: the chronological progression of the field, the literature, or an idea that is necessary to understand the literature review, if the body of the literature review is not already a chronology.
- Selection Methods: the criteria you used to select (and perhaps exclude) sources in your literature review. For instance, you might explain that your review includes only peer-reviewed articles and journals.
- Standards: the way in which you present your information.
- Questions for Further Research: What questions about the field has the review sparked? How will you further your research as a result of the review?
IV. Writing Your Literature Review
Once you've settled on how to organize your literature review, you're ready to write each section. When writing your review, keep in mind these issues.
A literature review section is, in this sense, just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence [citations] that demonstrates that what you are saying is valid.
Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the research problem, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological. Related items that provide additional information but that are not key to understanding the research problem can be included in a list of further readings.
Use Quotes Sparingly
Some short quotes are okay if you want to emphasize a point, or if what an author stated cannot be easily paraphrased. Sometimes you may need to quote certain terminology that was coined by the author, not common knowledge, or taken directly from the study. Do not use extensive quotes as a substitute for your own summary and interpretation of the literature.
Summarize and Synthesize
Remember to summarize and synthesize your sources within each thematic paragraph as well as throughout the review. Recapitulate important features of a research study, but then synthesize it by rephrasing the study's significance and relating it to your own work.
Keep Your Own Voice
While the literature review presents others' ideas, your voice [the writer's] should remain front and center. For example, weave references to other sources into what you are writing but maintain your own voice by starting and ending the paragraph with your own ideas and wording.
Use Caution When Paraphrasing
When paraphrasing a source that is not your own, be sure to represent the author's information or opinions accurately and in your own words. Even when paraphrasing an author’s work, you still must provide a citation to that work.
V. Common Mistakes to Avoid
These are the most common mistakes made in reviewing social science research literature.
- Sources in your literature review do not clearly relate to the research problem;
- You do not take sufficient time to define and identify the most relevent sources to use in the literature review related to the research problem;
- Relies exclusively on secondary analytical sources rather than including relevant primary research studies or data;
- Uncritically accepts another researcher's findings and interpretations as valid, rather than examining critically all aspects of the research design and analysis;
- Does not describe the search procedures that were used in identifying the literature to review;
- Reports isolated statistical results rather than synthesizing them in chi-squared or meta-analytic methods; and,
- Only includes research that validates assumptions and does not consider contrary findings and alternative interpretations found in the literature.
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