How to Write a Literature Review
Firstly, a literature review should not be confused with a book review. A literature review is a study that examines academic articles, books and other literary sources (such as previously-published dissertation papers and conference notes) where these are related to a given issue, theory or research field. This type of review critically evaluates each piece of literature and provides a summary and description of it. The aim is to provide an overview of any significant works that have been published on a particular topic.
Component Parts of a Literature Review
Like any primary research, there are four steps to developing a literature review:
- Identify the problem: What field of study or topic are you examining and what are its main issues?
- Search for suitable literature: Locate any materials that are relevant to the topic or subject matter being investigated.
- Evaluate all data: Figure out which pieces of literature contribute significantly to understanding the topic.
- Analyze and interpret the material: Discuss any important findings and/or conclusions from related literature.
You should include the following elements in your literature review:
- Set out the objectives of the review and provide a concise overview of the topic, subject matter, theory or problem being investigated;
- Categorize the various works of literature you have identified, e.g., the works that support a given position, those that oppose a given position, and those that put forward an entirely different theory or thesis;
- Explain the similarities in the selected works of literature and show how each one differs from others;
- Draw conclusions about which works are best in terms of their arguments, have the most convincing opinions, and contribute most to developing and understanding this field of research.
Consider the following points when assessing each work:
- How objective is it? Is the viewpoint of the author biased or fair? Does the author consider contrary opinions or do they ignore important information to prove their point.
- What is the provenance of the piece? How qualified is the author? Have they supported their arguments with credible evidence such as historical data, statistics, case studies, the latest research findings, and so on?
- What is the value of the work? How convincing are the author’s main arguments and final conclusions? Does their work contribute significantly to understanding the topic?
- How persuasive is the work? Which theses put forward by the author is most or least credible?
Defining Uses and Purposes
Literature reviews can be part of a dissertation or thesis or they can be separate pieces of writing on given topics. In any case, their primary purposes are:
- To group individual pieces of work according to the contribution they make to understanding a given subject;
- To outline the relationships between the different works;
- To find fresh ways of interpreting or understanding any voids in existing knowledge on a subject;
- To reconcile any apparent contradictions in previous research;
- To point out areas where work has already been done, thereby preventing duplication;
- To identify and recommend areas for future research;
- To find the right literary context for a new writer’s original work;
In itself, though, a literature review does not represent any new work in a particular field.