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Sociology Research Guide: Literature Reviews

Main Objectives

Your literature review should:

  1. Be focused on and organized around your topic.
  2. Synthesize your research into a summary of what is and is not known about your topic.
  3. Identify any gaps or areas of controversy in the literature related to your topic.
  4. Suggest questions that require further research.
  5. Have your voice and perspective at the forefront rather than merely summarizing others' work.

The Process

Cat   Step 1: Choose a Topic

Choose a topic that is interesting to you; this makes the research and writing process more enjoyable and rewarding.

For a literature review, you'll also want to make sure that the topic you choose is one that other researchers have explored before so that you'll be able to find plenty of relevant sources to review.

 

magnifying glass held up to cat   Step 2: Research

Your research doesn't need to be exhaustive. Pay careful attention to bibliographies. Focus on the most frequently cited literature about your topic and literature from the best known scholars in your field. Ask yourself: "Does this source make a significant contribution to the understanding of my topic?"

Reading other literature reviews from your field may help you get ideas for themes to look for in your research. You can usually find some of these through the library databases by adding literature review as a keyword in your search.

Start with the most recent publications and work backwards. This way, you ensure you have the most current information, and it becomes easier to identify the most seminal earlier sources by reviewing the material that current researchers are citing.

 

Labeled "Scientific Cat Types" with cartoon of cat on back ("Nugget"), cat lying iwth legs tucked underneath ("loaf") and cat sprawled out ("noodle")Step 3: Organize Your Findings

The organization of your lit review should be determined based on what you'd like to highlight from your research. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Chronology: Discuss literature in chronological order of its writing/publication to demonstrate a change in trends over time or to detail a history of controversy in the field or of developments in the understanding of your topic.
     
  2. Theme: Group your sources by subject or theme to show the variety of angles from which your topic has been studied. This works well if, for example, your goal is to identify an angle or subtopic that has so far been overlooked by researchers.
     
  3. Methodology: Grouping your sources by methodology (for example, dividing the literature into qualitative vs. quantitative studies or grouping sources according to the populations studied) is useful for illustrating an overlooked population, an unused or underused methodology, or a flawed experimental technique.
     

cat lying on laptop as though typing  Step 4: Write

Be selective. Highlight only the most important and relevant points from a source in your review.

Use quotes sparingly. Short quotes can help to emphasize a point, but thorough analysis of language from each source is generally unnecessary in a literature review.

Synthesize your sources. Your goal is not to make a list of summaries of each source but to show how the sources relate to one another and to your own work.

Make sure that your own voice and perspective remains front and center. Don't rely too heavily on summary or paraphrasing. For each source, draw a conclusion about how it relates to your own work or to the other literature on your topic.

Be objective. When you identify a disagreement in the literature, be sure to represent both sides. Don't exclude a source simply on the basis that it does not support your own research hypothesis.

At the end of your lit review, make suggestions for future research. What subjects, populations, methodologies, or theoretical lenses warrant further exploration? What common flaws or biases did you identify that could be corrected in future studies?
 

cat lying on laptop, facing screen; text reads "needs moar ciatations"   Step 5: Cite

Double check that you've correctly cited each of the sources you've used in the citation style requested by your professor (APA, MLA, etc.) and that your lit review is formatted according to the guidelines for that style.

FAQ

What is a literature review?

green checkmark A literature review is:

  • Either a complete piece of writing unto itself or a section of a larger piece of writing like a book or article
  • A thorough and critical look at the information and perspectives that other experts and scholars have written about a specific topic
  • A way to give historical perspective on an issue and show how other researchers have addressed a problem
  • An analysis of sources based on your own perspective on the topic
  • Based on the most pertinent and significant research conducted in the field, both new and old

Red X  A literature review is NOT:

  • A descriptive list or collection of summaries of other research without synthesis or analysis
  • An annotated bibliography
  • A literary review (a brief, critical discussion about the merits and weaknesses of a literary work such as a play, novel or a book of poems)
  • Exhaustive; the objective is not to list as many relevant books, articles, reports as possible

pointing finger What's the point?  

Literature reviews can serve many purposes, some of which might be:

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