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Carrying out a literature review

Home > Student life > Postgraduate students > Carrying out a literature review

You may never have done a literature review before but they will be important as a postgraduate student. Reading the literature of the field will not least tell you where your own ideas fit in.

Why are literature reviews necessary?

Your research is seen as a contribution to knowledge in the field and it needs to indicate, therefore, that there is an awareness of what that knowledge comprises. The reasons for literature reviews are:

  • You need to read yourself into the field of study in order to gauge where your own ideas fit, what can inform them, what others think and have discovered, and to define where/in what ways your area of questioning your research and your findings could contribute to existing knowledge i.e. identifying a 'gap' in knowledge which your work can fill.
  • Your own work both engages with the known literature and experts in the field - in an ongoing 'dialogue' or conversation with their work and to add something else. This might seem a tall order, because you cannot possibly read everything that has been written about your field of study, nor everything about your particular area, unless it is a very specialised area.
  • By searching out the literature to which your own work will contribute you are not trying to cover and summarise everything. This would be an endless, daunting and ultimately pointless task.
  • Yours is not a role of summariser of everyone else’s thoughts and discoveries, but an engagement in dialogue with what has been written and what is to be written and discovered by others. You need to read the background literature to contextualise and underpin your own work rather than substitute for it. This indicates to readers and examiners that you know the field and know also that you have something to contribute to it.

Searches

Literature reviews depend upon extensive literature searching. This is:

  • Undertaken before the research question is posed and the proposal written then
  • Ongoing work takes place alongside the research throughout.

Literature reviews do not usually appear as a separate chapter as such but form a considerable part of the theoretical perspectives chapter (often your second chapter) because they indicate previous work in the field, the context into which your own work fits and the different theories from which your own work springs, which inform it. You will be reading in areas of the field, of related fields, of critical and theoretical questioning and approaches to properly inform and drive your own work.

While the literature review you do is largeley written up in the introduction, you continue to refer to key themes, texts, writers and experts as and when their work informs and relates to yours throughout the thesis or dissertation.

International students and language

If you are an international student you will most probably find that you need either to seek a translation of the work of international theorists, critics or experts you hope to use in your own arguments and research, or to provide your own translation of the quotations you use if they do not publish in English.

For more advice, see International Students.

Using the literature review/theoretical perspectives to keep up to date and in a dialogue

The literature review is an essential part of planning your research and helps you to develop your own line of thought. As an ongoing process it also helps you to keep abreast of developments in your subject and field and possibly enables you to get in touch with others working in the same field (you can contact other researchers and discuss work with them). Your examiners will be looking for how far your thesis contributes to knowledge in the field, to which the literature review element of your work is central.

Carrying out the literature review

There are several activities associated with handling a literature review.

  • You need to scour the library and associated libraries, probably using a computer to help in your search, but not substituting it completely for looking around the shelves in the area where you find a useful book. There are often other related texts in close proximity.
  • Look in the reference section of key books and articles you are using and look in the reference section of other’s theses on similar topics. Here you will find what might be minor references for others’ work but possibly either background or really key references for your own, depending on the different slants and lines of argument taken in these sources.
  • Identify the key theorists and key theories as well as the most up to date developments in your field. The key theories and theorists will drive your own investigations, and the up to date work will show how relevant and in touch, how 'cutting edge' your own work is.

The Internet

Every researcher needs to become familiar with the use of the libraries available to them - not always your local library but often a specialist library perhaps at a distance - and to make good use of the information available on the Internet also. Using email and the web to keep in touch with other researchers and your supervisor is important  

Trawling for information is fascinating when you know how - and many of us do this every day. However, there is often too much information, and on the Internet it is not likely to be organised in the way you need it, so be careful with copying it. Do manage it, organise and sift it. There is a real concern with students at all levels merely downloading topical material from the net. This is plagiarism as serious as merely copying from a book. The other problem with material on the net is that it is put on the net without any quality control checks and some of it is incorrect and poorly written. You have been warned!

For more advice on using the internet, see e-learning skills and for further information see groups/support materials in Chapter 5 of The Postgraduate Research Handbook by Gina Wisker.

Activity

  • Take two articles/essays/chapters in your field, read them through carefully
  • What are they about roughly ?
  • Re read and underline essential and interesting arguments and points
  • Compare the two - what are the main areas of agreement, and of disagreement or emphasis between the two?
  • How does your own work engage with, add to or differ from the arguments of the two articles?
  • Select elements of both articles/essays/chapters and weave them into a debate with your own ideas in a piece which is no more than 500 words long. DO not just summarise their points and your own: ensure there is a debate
  • Ensure you fully reference in the text all quotation or reference to the articles/essays/chapters.

 

Reflection

  • Who do you think are the key theorists in your field whose work will underpin and be in dialogue with your own?
  • Where can you carry out literature searches and surveys?

For further information, see Chapter 12 of The Postgraduate Research Handbook by Gina Wisker