Chapter 5: The Literature Review

5.1 The Literature Review

A literature review is a survey of everything that has been written about a particular topic, theory, or research question. The word “literature” means “sources of information”. The literature will inform you about the research that has already been conducted on your chosen subject. This is important because we do not want to repeat research that has already been done unless there is a good reason for doing so (i.e., examining a new development in this area or testing a theory with a new population, or even just seeing if the research can be reproduced). A literature review usually serves as a background for a larger work (e.g., as part of a research proposal), or it may stand on its own. Much more than a simple list of sources, an effective literature review analyzes and synthesizes information about key themes or issues.

Purpose of a literature review

The literature review involves an extensive study of research publications, books and other documents related to the defined problem. The study is important because it advises you, as a researcher, whether or not the problem you identified has already been solved by other researchers. It also confirms the status of the problem, techniques that have been used by other researchers to investigate the problem, and other related details.

A literature review goes beyond the search for information; it includes the identification and articulation of relationships between existing literature and your field of research. The literature review enables the researcher to discover what material exists about a topic and to understand the relationship between the various contributions. This will enable the researcher to determine the contributions of each source (books, articles, etc.) to the topic. A literature review also enables the researcher to identify and (if possible) resolve contradictions, and determine research gaps and/or unanswered questions.

Even though the nature of the literature review may vary with different types of studies, the basic purposes remain constant and could be summarized as follows:

  • Provide a context for your research.
  • Justify the research you are proposing.
  • Ensure that your proposed research has not been carried out by another person (and if you find it has, then your literature review should specify why replication is necessary).
  • Show where your proposed research fits into the existing body of knowledge.
  • Enable the researcher to learn from previous theories on the subject.
  • Illustrate how the subject has been studied previously.
  • Highlight flaws in previous research.
  • Outline gaps in previous research.
  • Show how your proposed research can add to the understanding and knowledge of the field.
  • Help refine, refocus, or even move the topic in a new direction.