Literature Review


A literature review surveys scholarly articles, books, and other sources relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, providing a description, summary, and critical evaluation of these works. A literature review may encompass simple a summary of key sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern and combines both summary and synthesis, often within specific conceptual categories.

Writing a defective literature review is one of many ways to ruin a dissertation. This topic gives some crucial information on how to write a high-quality dissertation literature review. A researcher cannot perform significant research without first understanding the literature in the field. Conducting a literature review is a means of demonstrating an author’s knowledge about a particular field of study, including vocabulary, theories, key variables and phenomena, and its methods and history. Gall, Borg, and Gall (1996) argue that the literature review plays a vital role in:

  • Delimiting the research problem,
  • Seeking new lines of inquiry,
  • Avoiding fruitless approaches,
  • Gaining methodological insights,
  • Identifying recommendations for further research, and
  • Seeking support for grounded theory.

Hart (1998) contributes additional reasons for reviewing the literature, including:

  • Distinguishing what has been done from what needs to be done,
  • Discovering important variables relevant to the topic,
  • Synthesizing and gaining a new perspective,
  • Identifying relationships between ideas and practices,
  • Establishing the context of the topic or problem,
  • Rationalizing the significance of the problem,
  • Enhancing and acquiring the subject vocabulary,
  • Understanding the structure of the subject,
  • Relating ideas and theory to applications,
  • Identifying the main methodologies and research techniques that have been used, and
  • Placing the research in a historical context to show familiarity with state-of-the-art developments.

Another purpose for writing a literature review is that it provides a framework for relating new findings to previous findings in the discussion section of a dissertation. Without establishing the state of the previous research, it is impossible to establish how the new research advances the previous research.

There are some types of literature reviews which include:

  • Argumentative Review: This form examines literature selectively in order to support or refute an argument, deeply imbedded assumption, or philosophical problem already established in the literature.
  • Integrative Review: 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.
  • Historical Review: Historical literature reviews focus on examining research throughout a period of time, often starting with the first time an issue, concept, theory, or phenomenon emerged in the literature, then tracing its evolution within the scholarship of a discipline.
  • Methodological Review: A review does not always focus on what someone said (findings), but on how they came about saying what they say [method of analysis]. Reviewing methods of analysis provides a framework of understanding at different levels (i.e. those of theory, substantive fields, research approaches, and data collection and analysis techniques), how researchers draw upon 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.
  • Systematic Review: 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 analyze data from the studies that are included in the review.
  • Theoretical Review: The purpose of this form is to examine the corpus of theory that has accumulated in regard to an issue, concept, theory, or phenomenon.

In order to help the reviewer avoid mistakes in conducting a literature review, some of the most common mistakes are listed below. Gall, Borg, and Gall (1996) claim that the most frequent mistakes made in reviewing the literature are that the researcher:

  • Does not clearly relate the findings of the literature review to the researcher’s own study
  • Does not take sufficient time to define the best descriptors and identify the best sources to use in reviewing literature related to one’s topic
  • Relies on secondary sources rather than on primary sources in reviewing the literature;
  • Uncritically accepts another researcher’s findings and interpretations as valid, rather than examining critically all aspects of the research design and analysis;
  • Does not report the search procedures that were used in the literature review;
  • Reports isolated statistical results rather than synthesizing them by chi-square or meta-analytic methods; and
  • Does not consider contrary findings and alternative interpretations in synthesizing quantitative literature.

Gall, M. D., Borg, W. R., & Gall, J. P. (1996). Education research: An introduction (6th Ed.). White Plains, NY: Longman.
Hart, C. (1998). Doing a literature review: Releasing the social science research imagination. London: Sage.

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