Throwback Post: Planning a literature review

As you embark on your PhD, or indeed any research undertaking, you will need to produce a literature review. Not sure exactly what a literature review is, or why it is necessary? Here Charlotte Mathieson outlines the purpose and scope of the literature review.

What is the literature review?
The literature review surveys the existing work on the topic of your research. Its purpose is to provide the reader with the current state of your research field and to critically evaluate existing literature. The main objectives are to:

  • Summarise what’s already been done in your research area to demonstrate your knowledge and understanding of the field and how your research relates to it
  • Identify gaps, problems or limitations in existing research to situate your research within the wider field and create space for your original contribution
  • Identify sources that will be helpful to your research and, depending on the project, provide background context or frameworks for your analysis

The literature review is a key place in which to demonstrate research skills (finding and evaluating relevant resources) and to show the progression of your critical thinking in your response to this material.

The literature review is not:

  • A compilation of all material related to your research field, regardless of its relevance to your project
  • An annotated list of books and articles
  • A summary of material without critical commentary

Do you need a literature review?
In many disciplines the literature review is written as a separate section or chapter of your research, but not all subjects require this traditional format. Some disciplines have different conventions, or it might depend on the type of research project that you’re carrying out. You should check with your supervisor/department at an early stage of your PhD to find out what the standard format is for theses in your discipline.

However, even disciplines that don’t have a traditional literature review will require you to fulfil the objectives listed above. In these cases the literature review will most likely be integrated into the introduction or an early chapter in which you map out the research contexts and frameworks with which you are working.

You might:

  • Structure this as a historical survey of the development of critical perspectives;
  • Divide the material up by disciplinary/theoretical approach;
  • Start each chapter with a short survey of literature on the topic

Regardless of the requirements and format that your literature review takes, the objectives listed above and the tips on Writing a literature review will be necessary for developing the appropriate skills.

A helpful research tool

Whilst the literature review is a formal requirement of a research project, it serves an important purpose in your development of your research. It shouldn’t be seen as a tedious exercise to deal with as quickly as possible, or something to dash off at the end of the thesis!

Reviewing literature is essential in helping you to:

  • Establish and improve your knowledge of your research area and understand the importance of your research
  • Synthesise and understand a large volume of reading
  • Formulate critical opinions and develop analytical skills
  • Get direction and purpose for your own views: having something to argue against can often be the best way to develop a good idea into a strong and persuasive point
  • Keep up to date with developments in your field and new theories or approaches that might inform or change the direction of your research

For these reasons, the literature review should be seen as an on-going process that will help you to keep developing critical and reading skills throughout your PhD.

The Royal Literary Fund website guide to writing a literature review
University of Toronto writing help pages on literature reviews

by Charlotte Mathieson, originally published on January 3, 2014

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