The Broader Survey

Reviewing the literature

Academic dissertations typically include some kind of ‘literature review’. It is probably more useful for students to think of this, as examiners usually do, as a ‘critical review of the literature’, for reasons which will be made clear shortly. The literature review is normally an early section in the dissertation.

The broader survey

Students are normally expected to begin working on a general survey of the related research literature at the earliest possible stage of their research. This in itself is not what is normally meant in formal references to the ‘review of the literature’, but is rather a preparatory stage. This survey stage ranges far wider in scope and quantity than the final review, typically including more general works. Your survey (which exists in writing only in your notes) should help you in several ways, such as:

to decide on the issues you will address;

to become aware of appropriate research methodologies;

to see how research on your specific topic fits into a broader framework;

to help you not to ‘reinvent the wheel’;

to help you to avoid any well-known theoretical and methodological pitfalls;

to prepare you for approaching the critical review.

The ‘critical’ review

Clearly, if you are new to research in the field you are not in a position to ‘criticise’ the work of experienced researchers on the basis of your own knowledge of the topic or of research methodology. Where you are reporting on well-known research studies closely related to your topic, however, some critical comments may well be available from other established researchers (often in textbooks on the topic). These criticisms of methodology, conclusions and so on can and should be reported in your review (together with any published reactions to these criticisms!).

However, the use of the term critical is not usually meant to suggest that you should focus on criticising the work of established researchers. It is primarily meant to indicate that:

the review should not be merely a descriptive list of a number of research projects related to the topic;

you are capable of thinking critically and with insight about the issues raised by previous research.

What is a literature review for?

The review can serve many functions, some of which are as follows:

to indicate what researchers in the field already know about the topic;

to indicate what those in the field do not yet know about the topic – the ‘gaps’;

to indicate major questions in the topic area;

to provide background information for the non-specialist reader seeking to gain an overview of the field;

to ensure that new research (including yours) avoids the errors of some earlier research;

to demonstrate your grasp of the topic.

What should I include in a literature review?

In the formal review of the literature you should refer only to research projects which are closely related to your own topic. The formal review is not a record of ‘what I have read’. If your problem is how to choose what to leave out, one way might be to focus on the most recent papers. You should normally aim to include key studies which are widely cited by others in the field, however old they may be. Where there are several similar studies with similar findings, you should review a representative study which was well designed.

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