Writing Seminar 163/164 And the Rest is Drag: What is a Literature Review?

What is a literature review?

A literature review surveys scholarly articles, books and other sources relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory. The purpose is to offer an overview of significant literature published on a topic.

A literature review may constitute an essential chapter of a thesis or dissertation, or may be a self-contained review of writings on a subject. In either case, its purpose is to:

  • Place each work in the context of its contribution to the understanding of the subject under review
  • Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration
  • Identify new ways to interpret, and shed light on any gaps in, previous research
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort
  • Point the way forward for further research
  • Place one's original work (in the case of theses or dissertations) in the context of existing literature

A literature review can be just a simple summary of the sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis. A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization, or a reshuffling, of that information. It might give a new interpretation of old material or combine new with old interpretations. Or it might trace the intellectual progression of the field, including major debates. And depending on the situation, the literature review may evaluate the sources and advise the reader on the most pertinent or relevant.

Similar to primary research, development of the literature review requires four stages:

  • Problem formulation—which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues?
  • Literature search—finding materials relevant to the subject being explored
  • Data evaluation—determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic
  • Analysis and interpretation—discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature

Remember, this is a process and not necessarily a linear one. As you search and evaluate the literature, you may refine your topic or head in a different direction which will take you back to the search stage. In fact, it is useful to evaluate as you go along so you don't spend hours researching one aspect of your topic only to find yourself more interested in another.

The main focus of an academic research paper is to develop a new argument, and a research paper will contain a literature review as one of its parts. In a research paper, you use the literature as a foundation and as support for a new insight that you contribute. The focus of a literature review, however, is to summarize and synthesize the arguments and ideas of others without adding new contributions.

 

 

Finding Examples

It may be useful to look at other reviews to learn how researchers in the field "summarize and synthesize" the literature. Most research article or dissertation in the sciences will include a section which reviews the literature. Though the section may not be labeled as such, you will quickly recognize it by the number of citations and the discussion of the literature. Another option is to look for Review Articles, which are literature reviews as a stand alone article. Here are some resources where you can find Research Articles, Review Articles and Dissertations:

  • Articles+ - Due to the interdisciplinary nature of gender & sexuality studies Articles+ can be a great place to start your research. Please make use of the filters on the left-hand side of the screen to help refine your searches. 
  • Gender Studies Database & LGBT Thought and Culture - Gender Studies Database & LGBT Though and Culture have a large corpus of reviews and research articles. As with Articles+ make sure to take advantage of the filters (type of publication, publication date) to help refine your searches. 
  • Google Scholar  - Using the Cited By feature, hyperlinked below the search results, you can trace the scholarly conversation moving forward. 
  • Dissertations @ Princeton - Provides access to many Princeton dissertations, full text is available for most published after 1996.
  • Purdue OWL- The Purdue OWL site provides tips and examples of literature reviews and is a great source for reviewing citation styles 

 

*** Note about using Review Articles in your research - while they are useful in helping you to locate articles on your topic, remember that you must go to and use the original source if you intend to include a study mentioned in the review. The only time you would cite a review article is if they have made an original insight in their work that you talk about in your paper. Going to the original research paper allows you to verify the information about that study and determine whether the points made in the review are valid and accurate.

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