Writing a literature review seems to be a bit more difficult than first imagined by students. Part of this may be due to the writing experience that students bring with them to the project. What types of papers have you written before? Book reviews? Essays? Critiques? Have you ever tried to synthesize the literature (both theoretical and empirical) regarding some subject before?
Basic tools for writing are the same (such as style) but the goal of a literature review in a research paper is somewhat different from other types of writing. The goal is to bring together what is "known" to sociologists about your research topic in a way that sets up the "need" for your specific research. You will be looking for unanswered questions, or gaps in the knowledge. You might want to test established ideas on new populations or test a theory using variables measured in different ways. But you need to always keep in mind the following question: "how will my research take our understanding a step further?"
There are two basic parts to doing a literature review. One is to collect information on your topic. The other is writing the literature review. You've probably been to the library and looked up sociology journals by now. You've most likely had several courses in general sociology and in specialized courses. Maybe you've even had a course in theory. So you have access to a wealth of information. But how do you go through it and make sense of it "one the whole?" And how do you do this keeping in mind that the end of this review will convince the reader that your research is going to add something new? Below are a set of questions that may help you synthesize the information in a way that will help you write the literature review.
These questions are only a guide-some suggestions of issues to keep in mind as you read the texts you've accumulated. You will not need to address ALL of these questions in your literature review.
Some research is done to test theoretically informed hypotheses, while other research is designed to explore relationships. Either way, most research has some basic questions about why something varies: why do some adolescents use drugs while others do not? Why do some couples get divorced and others do not? What determines the number of children women have? Why do some people earn higher salaries than others? What leads to success in college? The dependent variable in the examples above are (in order): adolescent drug use; divorce; fertility; earnings; academic success.
The first thing you should consider is what is the status of the dependent variable? How many adolescents are reported to have used drugs? Have these rates increased lately? What is the current divorce rate? Has it changed? Are rates variable across regions of the country? If variations exist, this might provide a case for your research.
This is sometimes the most difficult part for undergraduates, but of course it is the most important question. Most of you have had a course or two that introduced you to the dominant paradigms in the discipline. But you may not have applied them to your specific research question. In this case, you will have to do some searching. You may find that some theories are discussed in the empirical literature, but not always. So you might want to check out the books used in related classes in sociology. For example, check out the books assigned for the deviance or juvenile delinquency courses. Or, you might think about making an appointment with your advisor or a faculty member in the area of your research to ask for help.
When reading through the literature, it is very important to make a note of just who was studied. If you are studying adolescents you'll want to make sure that you try to locate theories and research on appropriate age groups. This doesn't mean that research on adults (or any population that is different than the one you study) is not useful, but you do need to think about how relationships differ across groups of people.
Varying populations is one of the most common reasons for doing additional research on a topic. If sociologists have been studying primarily urban populations, you might want to see if relationships are similar in more rural settings. You might want to see if theories developed on adult populations work for teens. But remember, you really need to think sociologically about this. Why might you expect relationships to varying across regions or age groups?
Another reason for doing research is that you have a new way of looking at your variable(s) of interest. Previous research may focus on attitudes about something (say divorce) and you want to look at a related behavior (whether or not couples actually divorce). Another example comes from research on drug use. Let's say you want to understand why adolescents drink alcohol. There are many ways you can operationalize alcohol use. One way is to know whether or not adolescents have "ever tried" alcohol. Another is "how many times" in the past week or month or year. Still another way to explore alcohol use is to know "how many drinks are consumed on one occasion. You must first decide specifically what you want to research (maybe you did this in answering question number one), then be attentive to how the concept has been measured in previous research.
This will also be true for your independent variables. Let's say you want to see how the division of household labor affects the level of satisfaction that a person has with their partner. You will find research that measures the division of household labor by asking "who does more-you or your partner?" Other research elicits direct time estimates of domestic activity (how many hours per week spent in cleaning, for example). The first measure will allow a general test of the hypothesis: a person is happier when tasks are shared. The direst time estimates will allow for a couple of assessments. One is the issue of just how much time someone spends doing housework. The more time, the more unhappy. But combing estimates of both partners time allows for a more specific test of the first hypothesis: the greater the inequity, the more unhappy a person is. A 60-40 split may not make a difference for some, but an 80-20 split in responsibility seems more unfair.
Pay attention to how authors have explained these variations. The point is that how variables are measured can lead to the testing of very different hypotheses. You'll want to be aware of variation in measurement in the literature you read.
You may already have addressed this question somewhat in answering number one above. You may notice that adolescent alcohol use has actually declined, while use of other drugs has increased. This would lead you to doing additional research to understand and explain why these declines in use have occurred.
Recall from discussions of causality in social science that we try to do three things: show a correlation between two variables, establish a time ordering, and control for variables suspected of explaining away observed correlations. You may want to think about how theories you are familiar with would point you to control for certain variables (gender, social class, ethnicity, education).
As you read through the literature and think about the questions above, you will start to notice differences between what you intended to do and what has been done. Some of those differences may actually lead you to change your plans. But other differences are what make your research unique or different. They may be small, such as doing your research on a local community instead of a regional one. Or you may be operationalizing some of your variables differently. But small or large, these variations make additions to the literature. The most challenging part will be when you try to theorize what difference it makes.
You now have a lot of ideas about what is known on your topic and how your particular research fits in. What's next? There is no set standard for writing up your literature review. Everyone has their own way of getting from point to point. So what follows is one suggested outline. It assumes that you've thought about all seven questions above. See how it works and think about how to make transitions between sections. You will need to find what's most comfortable for you.
I. Description of the dependent variable. What is the incidence of it and what has been the major concern by sociologists in studying it. Why are you interested in studying it?
II Description of the main sociological theories that address the topic.
A. Summary of research done using one theory. This could also be a summary of research finding that X is related to Y. Be sure to group articles together by writing points. If several articles have found that X affects Y, just make the substantive point once and cite all articles.
B. Critiques of that theory, or set of relationships, with a discussion of research that differs.
C. Summary of research done using another theory or set of variables.
D. Critiques of that approach.
III Summary of what is known and the "problem" with it.
IV What your research will do to expand our knowledge or fill a gap in the literature.
A Literature Review Is Not:
- just a summary of sources
- a grouping of broad, unrelated sources
- a compilation of everything that has been written on a particular topic
- literature criticism (think English) or a book review
So, what is it then?
A literature review is an integrated analysis-- not just a summary-- of scholarly writings that are related directly to your research question. That is, it represents the literature that provides background information on your topic and shows a correspondence between those writings and your research question.
A literature review may be a stand alone work or the introduction to a larger research paper, depending on the assignment. Rely heavily on the guidelines your instructor has given you.
Why is it important?
A literature review is important because it:
- Explains the background of research on a topic.
- Demonstrates why a topic is significant to a subject area.
- Discovers relationships between research studies/ideas.
- Identifies major themes, concepts, and researchers on a topic.
- Identifies critical gaps and points of disagreement.
- Discusses further research questions that logically come out of the previous studies.