1.04 How to write a literature review
What is a literature review?
The aim of a literature review is to show your reader (your tutor) that you have read, and have a good grasp of, the main published work concerning a particular topic or question in your field. This work may be in any format, including online sources. It may be a separate assignment, or one of the introductory sections of a report, dissertation or thesis. In the latter cases in particular, the review will be guided by your research objective or by the issue or thesis you are arguing and will provide the framework for your further work.
It is very important to note that your review should not be simply a description of what others have published in the form of a set of summaries, but should take the form of a critical discussion, showing insight and an awareness of differing arguments, theories and approaches. It should be a synthesis and analysis of the relevant published work, linked at all times to your own purpose and rationale.
According to Caulley (1992) of La Trobe University, the literature review should:
• compare and contrast different authors’ views on an issue
• group authors who draw similar conclusions
• criticise aspects of methodology
• note areas in which authors are in disagreement
• highlight exemplary studies
• highlight gaps in research
• show how your study relates to previous studies
• show how your study relates to the literature in general
• conclude by summarising what the literature says
The purposes of the review are:
• to define and limit the problem you are working on
• to place your study in an historical perspective
• to avoid unnecessary duplication
• to evaluate promising research methods
• to relate your findings to previous knowledge and suggest further research
A good literature review, therefore, is critical of what has been written, identifies areas of controversy, raises questions and identifies areas which need further research.
Structure of the literature review
The overall structure of your review will depend largely on your own thesis or research area. What you will need to do is to group together and compare and contrast the varying opinions of different writers on certain topics. What you must not do is just describe what one writer says, and then go on to give a general overview of another writer, and then another, and so on. Your structure should be dictated instead by topic areas, controversial issues or by questions to which there are varying approaches and theories. Within each of these sections, you would then discuss what the different literature argues, remembering to link this to your own purpose.
Linking words are important. If you are grouping together writers with similar opinions, you would use words or phrases such as:
similarly, in addition, also, again
More importantly, if there is disagreement, you need to indicate clearly that you are aware of this by the use of linkers such as:
however, on the other hand, conversely, nevertheless
At the end of the review you should include a summary of what the literature implies, which again links to your hypothesis or main question.
You first need to decide what you need to read. In many cases you will be given a booklist or directed towards areas of useful published work. Make sure you use this help. With dissertations, and particularly theses, it will be more down to you to decide. It is important, therefore, to try and decide on the parameters of your research. What exactly are your objectives and what do you need to find out? In your review, are you looking at issues of theory, methodology, policy, quantitive research, or what? Before you start reading it may be useful to compile a list of the main areas and questions involved, and then read with the purpose of finding out about or answering these. Unless something comes up which is particularly important, stick to this list, as it is very easy to get sidetracked, particularly on the internet.
A good literature review needs a clear line of argument. You therefore need to use the critical notes and comments you made whilst doing your reading to express an academic opinion. Make sure that:
• you include a clear, short introduction which gives an outline of the review, including the main topics covered and the order of the arguments, with a brief rationale for this.
• there is always a clear link between your own arguments and the evidence uncovered in your reading. Include a short summary at the end of each section.
Use quotations if appropriate.
• you always acknowledge opinions which do not agree with your thesis. If you ignore opposing viewpoints, your argument will in fact be weaker.
Your review must be written in a formal, academic style. Keep your writing clear and concise, avoiding colloquialisms and personal language. You should always aim to be objective and respectful of others’ opinions; this is not the place for emotive language or strong personal opinions. If you thought something was rubbish, use words such as inconsistent, lacking in certain areas or based on false assumptions! (See Guide 1.21)
When introducing someone’s opinion, don’t use says, but instead an appropriate verb which more accurately reflects this viewpoint, such as argues, claims or states. Use the present tense for general opinions and theories, or the past when referring to specific research or experiments:
Although Trescothick (2001) argues that attack is the best form of defence, Boycott (1969) claims that.
In a field study carried out amongst the homeless of Sydney, Warne (1999) found that.
And remember at all times to avoid plagiarising your sources. Always separate your source opinions from your own hypothesis. making sure you consistently reference the literature you are referring to. When you are doing your reading and making notes, it might be an idea to use different colours to distinguish between your ideas and those of others. (See Guide 1.13).
Here is a final checklist, courtesy of the University of Melbourne:
Selection of Sources
Have you indicated the purpose of the review?
Are the parameters of the review reasonable?
Why did you include some of the literature and exclude others?
Which years did you exclude?
Have you emphasised recent developments?
Have you focussed on primary sources with only selective use of secondary sources?
Is the literature you have selected relevant?
Is your bibliographic data complete?
Critical Evaluation of the Literature
Have you organised your material according to issues?
Is there a logic to the way you organised the material?
Does the amount of detail included on an issue relate to its importance?
Have you been sufficiently critical of design and methodological issues?
Have you indicated when results were conflicting or inconclusive and discussed possible reasons?
Have you indicated the relevance of each reference to your research?
Has your summary of the current literature contributed to the reader’s understanding of the problems?
Does the design of your research reflect the methodological implications of the literature review?
The literature review will be judged in the context of your completed research.
The review needs to further the reader’s understanding of the problem and whether it provides a rationale for your research.
Links to further resources on writing dissertations
The way you approach your question will have a profound effect upon the way you construct your dissertation, so this section discusses the types of research you might undertake for your dissertation. The use of literature and case studies is considered and the merits of primary research are debated and advice is given on the use of existing research data. You may not be fond of statistics, but the potential relevance of a quantitative approach should be considered and similarly, the idea of qualitative analysis and conducting your own research may yield valuable data. The possibilities of using quantitative and qualitative data are also discussed.
What approach should I take – qualitative or quantitative?
This video clip contains comments from the following academics:
- Dr Iain Garner – Psychology
- Alan McGauley – Social Policy
- Shawna McCoy – Criminology
- Kevin Bonnett – Sociology
What approach should I take – qualitative or quantitative?
Your approach, research design, and research question are all connected. ‘Approach’ means something more than the type of data you use – it refers to your overall orientation to research and the type of claims you will make for your study. Dissertations can be based on either quantitative or qualitative data, or on a combination of both. How you choose this may depend on your preferences and abilities, and the suitability of particular approaches to your topic. You need to be able to justify why you have chosen to use such data. Quantitative data is particularly useful when you wish to discover how common particular forms of behaviour such as illegal drug use are for a particular age group. Qualitative data is particularly useful when you wish to find out why people engage in such behaviour.
Think about the Research Methods modules you have taken so far. Think about the different kinds of studies you have read for other modules. There is plenty of scope to use the approaches and methods that you are most comfortable with. You need to justify your approach and methods and to cite appropriate literature to help you do this.
You will probably want to use large datasets and undertake quantitative data analysis, and you will be adopting a realist approach to the topic studied. Quantitative dissertations are likely to be nearer to the lower end of the range of approved lengths for the dissertation (e.g. if the length is to be 5,000-8,000 words, dissertations based on quantitative analysis are likely to be closer to 5,000 words in length). They will also include tables and figures giving your important findings. Remember that all tables must be carefully titled and labelled and that sources of your data must be acknowledged.
You will probably want to use in-depth qualitative data, and you may wish to adopt a realist, a phenomenologist, or a constructionist approach to the topic. Qualitative dissertations will include descriptive material, usually extracts from interviews, conversations, documents or field notes, and are therefore likely to be nearer to the upper limit of your word range (e.g. 8,000 words). The types of method suitable for a dissertation could include content analysis, a small scale ethnographic study, small scale in-depth qualitative interviewing.
- Your preferred philosophical approach (realist, phenomenologist or constructionist).
- Your skills and abilities with methods of data collection (if needed) and analysis.
- The topic or issue you are interested in.
- How you frame your research question.
There are many ways in which qualitative and quantitative data and analysis can be combined. Here are two examples.
- You may be interested in doing an analysis that is primarily quantitative, looking at social trends, or policy implications. However you also want to introduce a ‘human touch’ by conducting one or several interviews asking what these trends mean to people or how particular individuals experience events. After doing your quantitative analysis, you should include a chapter or section on the qualitative data you have collected. In your discussion of findings you can use the qualitative data to help you understand the patterns in the quantitative analysis.
- You may be interested in doing an evaluative case study of a process or policy. You will have a particular focus – a ‘case’ that you are looking at. You will triangulate methods – i.e. collect data in several different ways, and some of these data may be quantitative. You will analyse each type of data and describe this, and then write a discussion that shows how each piece of analysis contributes to the overall picture of what is going on.
Your supervisor or research methods tutor may be able to give you detailed examples of these or other ways to combine methods.
Can my dissertation be entirely literature-based?
Yes. If you decide to do a primarily theoretical dissertation, it is almost certain that your dissertation will be entirely literature-based. This is likely to be the methodology of theoretical analysis: selection and discussion of theoretical material and descriptive material, in context, and detailed comparison of theories in terms of their applicability. You might ask how useful certain concepts or theories are for understanding particular patterns of behaviour. How useful is the concept of institutional racism? Is objectivity in the media possible? How useful is subcultural theory for understanding virtual communities? Here, the focus of attention is not so much to discover something about the social world, for example virtual communities, as to reach a judgement about the value of key concepts or theories in understanding that world. How the study is approached and how contrasting approaches are drawn upon needs to be stated very clearly.
A library-based or theoretical study is not necessarily ‘easier’ than an empirical study, indeed, it may well be harder. Remember that theoretical studies, like data-based studies, need to have their research design spelled out from the start.
But even if your dissertation is more empirically focused, it could still be entirely literature-based. You might choose to conduct a review of a field of work. What does the research literature in this field tell us about x? While all dissertations will include a literature review, it is possible to produce a dissertation that is entirely based on a review of the literature. If you do this, it is important to review the literature from an explicit angle and identify some themes to make the review distinctive. You might, for example, explore empirical debates in your chosen field across different countries or time periods.
What is case study research?
Whilst it is possible for dissertations to be entirely literature-based, the most common form of dissertation takes the form of a case study. Here the focus of attention is on a particular community, organisation or set of documents. The attraction of this kind of dissertation is that it stems from empirical curiosity but is at the same time practical. You may be interested in a wider question but a case study enables you to focus on a specific example. A major challenge in case study dissertations is connecting your own primary research or re-analysis with the broader theoretical themes and empirical concerns of the existing literature.
What’s an empirical study?
Most dissertations demand either primary or secondary research. In other words, you usually have to analyse data that you have either collected yourself or data that is already available. The reason for this is that the questions dissertations usually address take the following form: Is x happening? Is x changing? Why is x happening? Why is x changing? These questions demand primary or secondary analysis of data.
Case Study 9Think hard before you decide to undertake empirical research: a student’s view
What is secondary analysis?
Secondary analysis is when you analyse data which was collected by another researcher. It allows the researcher to explore areas of interest without having to go through the process of collecting data themselves in the field. The problem with using fieldwork methods in an undergraduate dissertation, however, is that they are costly in terms of time (which is relatively scarce in your final year!) and possibly your own financial resources too. You may choose, therefore, to undertake secondary research, analysing existing data.
Where do I find existing research data?
There are a range of documents that already contain research data that you can analyse. You may, for example, be interested in exploring whether gender stereotypes in the media are changing. This might entail content analysis of newspapers, magazines, video or other media over different time periods. Here you would not be collecting your own data but instead would be analysing existing documents.
If you are interested, for example, in doing historical research, you may need to visit archives. Government reports and autobiographies may also be used as data.
Other documents include official statistics, datasets (statistical data), and banks of interview transcripts which are all freely available to the academic community. Increasingly, documents, databases and archives are readily accessible online. Research Methods tutors on your course will be able to advise on the availability and accessibility of such data sets.
There are some advantages of doing secondary analysis, particularly if you are doing a quantitative study. You will be able to work with much larger datasets than you could have collected yourself. This has the following advantages:
- They allow you to discuss trends and social changes.
- The data are often collected through a random sample, which allows you to generalise to the population under consideration.
- They may also allow you to make comparisons over time, as some datasets are products of longitudinal studies. Examples of large datasets include the British Crime Survey, and the Youth Cohort Study. Smaller, more targeted datasets may also be available.
- Secondary analysis has disadvantages also: the data were collected for a purpose different from yours.
- You have to find out something about that purpose, as well as the methods of collection, in order to justify your use of a secondary dataset.
Collecting you own data – primary research
Quantitative data may also result from non-participant observations or other measurements (e.g. in an experimental design). Also, sometimes data that are collected through qualitative processes (participant observation, interviews) are coded and quantified. Your research methods tutor can give you further information on these types of data, but here are some common quantitative data collection methods and their definitions:
A series of questions that the respondent answers on their own. Self-completion questionnaires are good for collecting data on relatively simple topics, and for gaining a general overview of an issue. Questionnaires need to have clear questions, an easy to follow design, and not be too long.
Similar to a self-completion questionnaire, except that the questions that are asked by an interviewer to the interviewee. The same questions are read out in the same way to all respondents. There will typically be a fixed choice of answers for the respondents.
Watching people and recording systematically their behaviour. Prior to the observation, an observation schedule will be produced which details what exactly the researcher should look for and how those observations should be recorded.
If you are conducting a qualitative analysis you are likely to wish to use at least some original material. This may be collected through in-depth interviews, participant observation recordings and fieldnotes, non-participant observation, or some combination of these. Below are some data collection methods that you might want to use for your dissertation:
A way of asking questions which allows the interviewee to have more control of the interview. The interview could be semi-structured, which uses an interview schedule to keep some control of the interview, but also allows for some flexibility in terms of the interviewee’s responses. The interview could be unstructured, here the aim is to explore the interviewee’s feelings about the issue being explored and the style of questioning is very informal. Or the interview could be a life history where the interviewer tries to find out about the whole life, or a portion of the person’s life.
A form of interviewing where there are several participants; there is an emphasis in the questioning on a tightly defined topic; the accent is on interaction within the group and the joint construction of meaning. The moderator tries to provide a relatively free rein to the discussion.
This involves studying people in naturally occurring settings. The researcher participates directly in the setting and collects data in a systematic manner. The researcher will observe behaviour, listen to conversations, and ask questions.
Spend some time looking at general books about research – they will give you an overview of the data collection methods available and help you to make the best choice for your project. Bryman (2004) would be a useful starting point.
For any piece of research you conduct, be it empirically based (quantitative or qualitative) or library based, its methods must be justified. You need to show in the final dissertation how you have given consideration to different methods, and why you have chosen and eliminated these.
STUDENT VOICE: Findings from our research
In our study, supervisors saw part of their role as someone who draws out students’ reasons for choosing a particular research approach. Often in early supervision meetings they ask students to justify their reasons for choosing a library-based or an empirical study. (Todd, Smith and Bannister 2006, p167).
Your supervisor will want you to offer convincing reasons as to why you’ve chosen the approach you have – so be ready!
If you’re having difficulty making that choice, don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor for their advice. This was particularly useful for one of our respondents:
It’s been a valuable experience for me it’s so different from other stuff. With other essays you can rush them if you have to. but this is so much work, you can’t rush it. It demands more. (Todd, Bannister and Clegg, 2004, p340)
….My reasons for data collection is literature based as my research question involved sensitive subjects which would have been unsuitable for primary data collection. (Level 6 students at Sheffield Hallam University)
I chose primary data because it would enable me to build skills that would be useful for postgraduate study. (Level 6 students at Sheffield Hallam University)
It will involve primary data, secondary data, quantitative and qualitative research methods, lit reviews, theory and policy studies and an exploration of alternatives. My dissertation is to be based around the experience of ‘poverty’, as poverty is the experience. Theories and policies are not. However, to do justice to the subject, theories and policies will be included so Iam able to demonstrate where failures in the system may exist. (Level 6 students at Sheffield Hallam University)
Note: Research must be conducted in a sensible and ethical manner; data must be analysed and presented in a rational manner. It is important that students do not expose themselves or others to dangers or risks when conducting research. Students need the approval of their dissertation supervisor before embarking on any type of fieldwork (see the section on Research Ethics for more information).
Will my research be inductive or deductive?
In general, deductive research is theory-testing and inductive research is theory-generating. Often people link deductive research with quantitative experiments or surveys, and inductive research with qualitative interviews or ethnographic work. These links are not hard and fast – for instance, experimental research, designed to test a particular theory through developing a hypothesis and creating an experimental design, may use quantitative or qualitative data or a combination. If your research starts with a theory and is driven by hypotheses that you are testing (e.g. that social class background and social deprivation or privilege are likely to affect educational attainment), it is, broadly speaking, deductive. However much research combines deductive and inductive elements.
What’s all this about research design?
Research design is vital to conducting a good piece of work. At the start of your research you need to set down clearly:
- Your research focus and research question .
- How you propose to examine the topic:
- methods of data collection
- methods of data analysis
- The types and sources of information you need.
- How you will access these sources of information (be they people, existing datasets, biographical accounts, media articles or websites, official records).
- The proposed outcome of this research (in your case, a dissertation) and the form it will take.
- A time-frame for all this.
You and your supervisor will discuss your design and decide whether the research is ‘do-able’. Your university may require you to produce a report (e.g. an ‘interim framework report’ or a short ‘research proposal’) that specifies your research design. Other people may have to look at the design to ascertain whether there are ethical issues that affect your research.
- Quantitative or qualitative? A quantitative approach will mean you will need substantial datasets, as well as the inclusion of tables and statistics in your final submission. This information could come from a variety of sources – remember to acknowledge them! A qualitative approach will probably mean conducting interviews or focus groups or observing behaviour. Ask yourself if you are prepared to do this, and think about the best way of getting the answers you want from people. Will you stop people in the street? Will you conduct telephone interviews? Will you send out survey forms and hope that people return them? Will you be a participant or non participant observer?
- Deductive or inductive?Deductive research is theory-testing, which is often linked to datasets, surveys or quantitative analysis. Inductive research is theory-generating, and is often linked to qualitative interviews.
- Empirical or theoretical? An empirical study could involve close analysis of statistics or some form of qualitative research. However, a theoretical study brings its own challenges, and you may be called upon to compare theories in terms of their applicability.
- Once you have decided upon your approach, you can write out a research design, i.e. how you are going to approach the project.
- Now look a little at the research methods that you have studied. Apart from matching your research to your general sense of objective/subjective reality, it is important to ensure that you match your methodology to the problem you are pursuing.
- What kind of data do you need to answer your question/test your hypothesis? How would you best be able to collect that data?
- Again, consider time and feasibility of the exercise. The ability to manage your time will be directly related to your ability to control the boundaries of the study – especially if it is closely linked to your workplace.
- Now that you have got so far, try to write up your research proposal as far as you can. Make sure that you identify where your proposal needs further work and, at the same time, where you will have to put your maximum effort. It may be helpful to draw a critical path so that you are clear which actions you need to take and in what sequence. You will find it helpful to plot your research questions on the chart on the next page and ensure that your plans for collecting data really answer the question as well as avoiding ethical problems.
- At this stage you must be really ruthless with yourself. How viable is it? What are the threats to the study? Try some ‘what if?’ questions on yourself. It will be better to go back to the drawing board now, than once the project is underway.
- IMPORTANT. Whatever approach you settle on, you MUST be able to justify its appropriateness to your topic and question.
- Does the data required to answer your question already exist or will you have to generate your own data?
- Can you combine quantitative with qualitative methods? e.g. a survey which includes interviews or a case study that looks at a situation from numerous angles.
- What factors may limit the scope of your research? (time, resources, etc.)
- Which method(s) best suit the questions and time you have available to do this study?
- Do you know the differences between types of data, and types of analysis?
- Does your project have clear links between theory and practice?
BRYMAN, A. (2004).Social Research Method. 2nd ed. Oxford, Oxford University Press
CRESWELL, J. (2002).Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. 2nd ed. London, Sage
SEALE, C.(2006).Researching society and culture. London, Sage
Here are some references for specific methods:
ARKSEY, H and KNIGHT, P. (1999).Interviewing for social scientists: an introductory resource. London, Sage
DALE, A.; ARBER, S.; AND PROCTOR, M.(1998).Doing Secondary Analysis. London, Allen and Unwin
HAMMERSLEY, M. and ATKINSON, P. (1995).Ethnography: Principles in Practice. London, Routledge
OPPENHEIM, A. N. (1992).Questionnaire Design, Interviewing and Attitude Measurement. London, Pinter
1. Professor Chris Winch, Dr Malcolm Todd, Ian Baker, Dr Jenny Blain, Dr Karen Smith