While the literature review is often defined as a summary of secondary sources—what other researchers have said about the subject—a better starting point would be to think of it as a critical review of existing scholarship from the perspective of your research problem.
Because summarizing is a relatively passive exercise, a literature review which simply summarizes typically lacks two characteristics of a strong literature review—analysis and coherence.
You achieve the analysis element by approaching the secondary material critically. Being critical involves indicating the strengths and weakness of scholarship, making connections between the work of other scholars, and assessing the logic, methodology, assumptions embedded in each source.
You achieve coherence by viewing the sources through the lens of your research problem. In other words, your principal concern is not with the source as such, but with those components of the source that relate directly to your research problem.
- Think about which sources to include and exclude. Not every source you read during the research process is going to make its way to the literature review. Sources that should are those that represent definitive or broadly accepted theories, exemplify the current research on the topic, present a novel approach, contextualize the issues at stake, and/or provide useful summaries of a body of research.
- Ensure that your literature review critically integrates and evaluates previous research. Your literature review should not be a series of loosely connected summaries of sources. One way of avoiding that is to determine the relationships between sources. Instead of organizing your document around the sources themselves, you may organize it thematically. Establish the main themes you observe in the sources and arrange those themes logically. The organization pattern you choose might also develop organically based on the content of the theories. If that does not materialize, choose a deliberate organization pattern based on themes, major debates, methodology, or chronology.
- Divide writing the literature review into multiple stages. During the early stages, your main concern is to collect your research notes and rearrange them to form a coherent, logical progression of ideas. During the latter stages, at which time you should have developed a more sophisticated understanding of the research, you can begin to view the ideas from a more critical perspective by answering questions such as, what type of assumptions do researchers make? Are there any gaps in this body of research? Do researchers complement or contradict each other’s work?
- Examine critically the ideas you find in the research. This does not only mean you must identify their “flaws.” Critique is essentially a process of appraisal. In order to start this process, you should begin with the fundamental questions: who says what? Why do they say what they say? Which theories/worldviews/discourses inform their work? What are the indirect consequences of these theories? What inferences and/or assumptions do the researchers make? Are there factors they fail to take into account? What is their perspective? What did others say about their work? How does their work relate to your own research problem?
I. Locate sources by discussing your topic with your supervisor and other faculty members. You could also consult with librarians, review the bibliography of influential sources, and read the syllabi of seminars on related topics.
II. Create a reading list and a timeline for reading and note-taking. The timeline should be ambitious but also realistic. The timeline is a tool that reinforces accountability and is essential to anyone working on an independent project.
III. Write a comprehensive summary of each source as soon as you finish reading it. Doing so immediately allows you to capture all your thoughts in real-time.
IV. List the relevant ideas you find in each source. You may list these ideas under the comprehensive summary. While the summary allows you to recall the overall argument of the source, the list of relevant ideas will be especially helpful when you begin synthesizing the research.
V. Write down your response to each relevant idea. Your response could be formulated as statements or as questions. These responses will be especially helpful when you begin critically evaluating the sources.
VI. Group sources under several potential headings: themes, chronology, methodology, debates, etc. As there are always multiple ways to organize sources, experimenting with several can help you determine the most appropriate organization pattern.
VII. Determine the most logical organization pattern. The appropriate pattern might be a combination of several patterns. For instance, a section describing an overview of the field’s development might follow a chronological pattern, while a section describing a key debate in the field might be presented thematically.