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Literature Review Research

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is a comprehensive summary of the ideas, issues, approaches and research findings that have been published on a particular subject area or topic. However, it is not a simple description of all that the reviewer has read on the topic. It is better understood as a critical synthesis (or bringing together) of:

  • what can reasonably be asserted based on the extent of the literature findings
  • what worked and didn't work in terms of methods of (and approaches to) investigation
  • what can be gleaned from the range of theoretical perspectives that have been applied
  • what gaps, inconsistencies or problems still need to be addressed in further research on the topic
  • what results may reasonably be expected to be repeatable, and under what circumstances.

A good literature review will aim to "weigh up the contribution that particular ideas, positions or approaches have made to the topic" (Hart, 1998:9). Hart's quote emphasizes the important critical and evaluative function of literature reviews. When you are preparing your own literature reviews, you will need to think about critically evaluating the research that you read. Of course, being ‘critical’ doesn't have to mean being ‘negative’ – you can also ‘critically’ examine the strengths and positive aspects of a piece of research.

Kiteley, R., & Stogdon, C. (2014). What is a literature review?. SAGE Publications Ltd,

What is NOT a Literature Review?

The following are NOT literature reviews:

Essay in which you convince someone of something or to simply inform the reader about a particular topic.

Annotated bibliography in which you summarize each article you reviewed.  A literature review goes beyond basic summarizing to critically analyze the reviewed works and their relationship to your research question.

Research paper where you select resources to support one side of an issue versus another.  A lit review should explain and consider all sides of an argument to avoid bias, and areas of agreement and disagreement should be highlighted.

Purpose of the Literature Review

The purpose of a literature review is to:

  • Provide context for your research hypothesis or question
  • Ensure your research is original (i.e. not already published)
  • Identify where your research fits into the existing body of literature
  • Highlight the strengths and weaknesses in any previous relevant research
  • Make recommendations for further research

Ultimately, the main goal of a literature review is to provide the researcher with sufficient knowledge about the topic in question so that they can eventually make an intervention.

Types of Literature Reviews

While literature reviews are designed to provide an overview and synthesis of pertinent sources you have explored, there are several approaches to how they can be done, depending upon the type of analysis underpinning your study. Listed in each of these sections are definitions of types of literature reviews.

From University of South Carolina Library

This form examines literature selectively in order to support or refute an argument, deeply imbedded assumption, or philosophical problem already established in the literature.

The purpose is to develop a body of literature that establishes a contrarian viewpoint. Given the value-laden nature of some social science research [e.g., educational reform; immigration control], argumentative approaches to analyzing the literature can be a legitimate and important form of discourse. However, note that they can also introduce problems of bias when they are used to to make summary claims of the sort found in systematic reviews.

Considered a form of research that reviews, critiques, and synthesizes representative literature on a topic in an integrated way such that new frameworks and perspectives on the topic are generated. The body of literature includes all studies that address related or identical hypotheses. A well-done integrative review meets the same standards as primary research in regard to clarity, rigor, and replication.

Few things rest in isolation from historical precedent. Historical reviews are focused on examining research throughout a period of time, often starting with the first time an issue, concept, theory, phenomena emerged in the literature, then tracing its evolution within the scholarship of a discipline. The purpose is to place research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments and to identify the likely directions for future research.

A review does not always focus on what someone said [content], but how they said it [method of analysis].

This approach provides a framework of understanding at different levels (i.e. those of theory, substantive fields, research approaches and data collection and analysis techniques), enables researchers to draw on a wide variety of knowledge ranging from the conceptual level to practical documents for use in fieldwork in the areas of ontological and epistemological consideration, quantitative and qualitative integration, sampling, interviewing, data collection and data analysis, and helps highlight many ethical issues which we should be aware of and consider through course of study.

This form consists of an overview of existing evidence pertinent to a clearly formulated research question, which uses pre-specified and standardized methods to identify and critically appraise relevant research, and to collect, report, and analyse data from the studies that are included in the review. Typically it focuses on a very specific empirical question, often posed in a cause-and-effect form, such as "To what extent does A contribute to B?"

The purpose of this form is to concretely examine the corpus of theory that has accumulated in regard to an issue, concept, theory, phenomena. The theoretical literature review help establish what theories already exist, the relationships between them, to what degree the existing theories have been investigated, and to develop new hypotheses to be tested. Often this form is used to help establish a lack of appropriate theories or reveal that current theories are inadequate for explaining new or emerging research problems. The unit of analysis can focus on a theoretical concept or a whole theory or framework.