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Writing literature reviews

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

Writing literature reviewsA 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 a 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.

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 (depending on whether it is for an Honours thesis or for a PhD). 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 quickly narrow 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 a film director (Rudestam and 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 pinpointed.

'Literature' can include a range of sources:

  • journal articles
  • monographs
  • computerized databases
  • conferences proceedings
  • dissertations
  • empirical studies
  • government reports and reports from other bodies
  • historical records
  • statistical handbooks.

A number of these may be on the web. You should approach such material with the same critical eye as you approach printed material.

What are the examiners looking for?

A review of the literature should:

  • set up a theoretical framework for your research;
  • show your reader that you:
    • have a clear understanding of the key concepts/ideas/studies/ models related to your topic;
    • know about the history of your research area and any related controversies;
    • can discuss these ideas in a context appropriate for your own investigation;
    • can evaluate the work of others;
  • clarify important definitions/terminology;
  • develop the research space you will also indicate in the Introduction and Abstract;
  • narrow the problem, and make the study feasible.

Questions you need to ask yourself when you are planning and drafting your Literature Review:

  1. What has been done in your field of research? What principles of selection are you going to use?
  2. How are you going to order your discussion? Chronological, thematic, conceptual, methodological, or a combination? What section headings will you use?
  3. How do the various studies relate to each other? What precise contribution do they make to the field? What are their limitations?
  4. How does your own research fit into what has already been done?

Adapted from Literature Review Guide, Gail Craswell, ANU.

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