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Review the literature

Why do you need to review the literature for your thesis or project?

A review of the literature has the following functions:

  • to justify your choice of research question, theoretical or conceptual framework and method
  • to establish the importance of the topic
  • to provide background information needed to understand the study
  • to show readers you are familiar with significant and/or up-to-date research relevant to the topic
  • to establish your study as one link in a chain of research that is developing knowledge in your field.

The review traditionally provides an historical overview of the theory and the research literature, with a special emphasis on the literature specific to the thesis topic. It serves as well to support the argument/proposition behind your thesis, using evidence drawn from authorities or experts in your research field. It provides the bridge between your introduction of your research question or problem and the presentation of your original contribution.

Your review of the literature may be:

  1. stand-alone; or
  2. embedded in the discussion; or
  3. segmented into a series of chapters on several topics.

The review must be shaped by a focus on key areas of interest, including research which provides a background to the topic. It should also be selective. A common mistake in writing the review is to comment on everything you have read regardless of its relevance. In your writing it is useful to think of the review as a funnel - start wide with the overview and then narrow fairly quickly into discussing the research that relates to your specific topic.

Another way of looking at the process, particularly if you are examining several topics (or variables) is to think of yourself as rather like a film director (Rudestam & Newton, 1992). You can think of providing your audience with:

  • long shots to provide a solid sense of the background
  • middle distance shots where the key figures and elements to be examined are brought clearly into view
  • close-up shots where the precise focus of your work is pin-pointed.
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