38 Conducting the Review

The first step of conducting a literature review is to delineate your topic and audience (Pautausso, 2013). At the outset of your literature review, a strong research question should be established (as discussed in Chapter 1). It is likely that your research question will change after appraising the literature –a refinement that will hopefully allow you to better address what is missing. When adjusting your research question, remember that the gap you address need not be a big one. No one disrupts the thought of an entire tradition on the first try. There are many vital humble tasks within the search for knowledge, and your research can be as simple as adding new evidence to an important thesis. Try to take on only as much complexity as you can make transparent for your reader. It is important, however, that you do eventually find this boundary in reviewing the literature, and that you choose one that is narrow enough to be feasibly answered by you and which fulfills a gap in the field.

There are three main types of gaps you can fulfill in an established body of literature. Filling those gaps enables us to make contributions to the scholarly field. The first and most prevalent contribution is to articulate a theoretical, conceptual or methodological gap in previous research. This process involves noticing where the theory, concepts or methods of previous research seems to be lacking, and then seeks to address this lack by either adding new empirical information or pointing out internal flaws. A common instance of this is in the many social science papers being produced about COVID-19 vaccination skepticism, whereby an established concept (vaccination skepticism associated with anti-scientific attitudes) is being examined in relation to changing cultural processes, internet use, spirituality, race and other social processes (e.g. see Rutjens & van der Lee, 2020). These research are adding to our conceptual and theoretical understandings about the concept.

The second common contribution is to take an authoritative concept or tool and apply it to something apparently unrelated. In Sociology, where the concepts are as multifarious as the thing being studied (society), this often turns out to be effective in articulating a new nuance of the concept and social experience being studied. For instance, it could mean taking a model for understanding propaganda and applying it to national sports tournaments to uncover the ways in which sports inculcate patriotic fervour (something which was done by Shaw and Youngblood 2017 to understand the Cold War emphasis on sports). Finally, you can challenge an outdated concept and apply it to a current context; for instance, traditional definitions of classism (defined as an act of intentional discrimination based on class) may no longer apply within our current context. You can then indicate the defects of the concept and nuance it according to your description of the changes in the field.

You must also consider the audience for whom you are summarizing the literature (Pautausso, 2013): Is it a professor who is an expert in this field? A journal publication that focuses on migration theory? For research writing which attempts to gain approval from other experts in the field, this means that you should attempt to address the fundamental propositions and theories in your field. A good literature review should be able to address the seminal studies in the audience’s discipline while also accounting for more recent literature (Pautausso, 2013; Pacheco-Vega, 2016).

Box 6.1 – Example – Conducting a Literature Review
Generally, you will want a search net and database that captures lines of inquiry near to your own (Pautausso, 2013). Three of the most common places to start your literature search are:
  1. Your university library: Most higher educational institution’s library have access to thousands of journals and databases. This should be the first place to commence your search. Once you are logged in, you will have access to all the materials that your institution subscribes to. Your institution will also have a dissertation and thesis collection –you should consult them to get ideas on how to structure your thesis. You can search UBC’s collection at https://open.library.ubc.ca/cIRcle/collections/ubctheses
  2. Google Scholar: Google scholar will often help you to locate a wider range of material that you would likely find at your university’s library. The drawback is that many of those items require subscription. Despite the fact that you might not have access to some of the articles cited, knowing what is available gives you the opportunity to make a request to your librarian to access them for you.
  3. Databases: Some of the best known databases in the social sciences are Proquest, Scopus and Web of Science.
  4. Conducting a literature review is a systematic process. Here, we illustrate what a literature search might look like. Suppose you are researching the “positive benefits of pets for test-taking,” in which you seek to answer the question: “does studying around a pet reduce test-taking anxiety and performance?” You could begin by establishing searchable phrases that capture the scope of my question. That could mean searching both the “effect of studying by pets on test performance” and the “effect of studying by pets on test-taking anxiety.” It may also be good to understand the basic literature defining “test-taking anxiety” and studying habits which alleviate. To ensure that you are finding content more specific to your discipline, it is also a good idea to apply the “search filters” on the research. This way you can find articles that answer this question primarily through Sociological methods and theory. This can likewise be achieved by going to databases like Proquest which cater to the Social Sciences.
  5. If the initial search process does not provide you with enough literature, try breaking up the topics related to your question to make the statement more broad. Back to the example above, you could break it up by searching for “pets and studying habits” or “methods for reducing test-taking anxiety” studying and pets”, “anxiety and pets”, “test-taking and pets” etc. You could also substitute “pets” with “animals”. It may also be good to understand the basic literature defining “test-taking anxiety” and “studying habits”. Be wary of this broader search, however, as it may require much more searching within papers in order to find an abstract which relates to your topic. This could mean facing an unmanageable amount of articles. Nonetheless, it is a good idea to stake out the terrain by casting a wide net. If you find you are gathering too many sources, you can narrow your search accordingly.

An essential part of an effective search process is knowing how to filter relevant/irrelevant literature (Pautasso, 2013). The filtering process requires that you return to your research question at every step and ask: “is this paper asking the same question? Does its findings provide the background to my question?” In the social sciences, where all interactions are complexly interwoven, there exists the temptation to find a relation to your question in everything. Thus, it is important that you are able to critically separate what is more and less influential on your question (critical comes from the Greek kritikos, a word derived from krino which means “I separate, judge”). Continuing with the example in Box 6.5.1, a paper that addresses the “effect of pugs on reducing anxiety” certainly has some relation to the RQ on pets and test-taking anxiety, but will not be as relevant as a paper which specifically addresses “the effect of studying around pugs on test-taking anxiety.” With limited time, it is important to be able to discern the more relevant literature. If you are finding that too much is related to your topic and are struggling to see where you fit in or how you can address it all, try narrowing the scope of your research question further. You could do this by limiting your question to a specific demographic group, location, event or debate. Alternatively, if you are finding too little information related to your research question, try broadening the scope of your research by searching generally for your key variables or concepts. This will help you more easily discern the relationship between your work and others.

Once you have found initial papers regarding your topic through the library database, the search is not over. In fact, much of the seminal papers you find will be referenced by many of the papers you first gather (Pacheco-Vega, 2016). Pay close attention to the literature reviews of other research and the authors that are commonly mentioned. Make a list of these authors, the concepts or findings proposed by them, and then search them up yourself (Pacheco-Vega, 2016). Scan through the bibliographies as well, and note the titles of the articles referenced. If there are concepts/studies which appear identical to yours, track them and note how often they are mentioned (this is a process that Pacheco-Vega called “concept tracing”). This is an indication that you need to cite those sources to join the scholarly conversation. Likewise, when you feel as if you have enough articles that talk about one concept, say “test-anxiety,” then reduce your search and look for commentary on other concepts. This is what Pacheco-Vega (2016) calls “concept saturation”. Ideally, your literature search should continue until you have reached saturation, which is indicated by your inability to find no new sources related to the topic. This can be difficult or even not feasible for an undergraduate project that needs to be completed in a year. Nonetheless, you must make sure that you have surveyed the literature thoroughly and have captured the key issues, debates and findings.

Reading and Note-taking

Now that you have learned to efficiently find literature related to your topic, it is time to efficiently read your literature. There are five key questions that are important to address when reading and taking notes on the related literature:

Why is it Written?

At every stage, it is most important to ask why this is important for answering your research question (Do the findings support or deny your hypothesis? Do their methods miss out on a key element? Do you contest the theoretical explanation of their findings? Is this key background information?).

The first step should also pertain to your filtering process. When asking why these findings are relevant or if this method is important with regard to your research, you should be able to determine early on if reading the paper is worthwhile. For instance, an abstract that discloses that this paper “only studied the negative effect of pets on social relationships” could prove relevant, but far less so than a paper that directly observes the connection between studying by pets and test-anxiety. Moreover, by asking why at every stage, your reading will gradually focus on the key problems and scholars you need to make a note of. The more intentional and reflexive you are at every step of the review, the more thorough and secure your account of the literature will be.

What is it Saying?

Ask what does this research find (what are the key findings of this investigation?).

Be clear in noting what key conclusions your literature comes to. Include in this the theoretical explanations that are given for findings. This is often a good entrypoint into asking whether you agree with the explanation given for the findings or whether there is a key component missing. At the introduction of a study, you will often be able to find a conceptual framework by each author which explains the relation between key concepts used throughout their paper (Kennesaw State Library, n.d.). It is helpful to relate each finding back to these organized concepts, and to use this concept as a connection to related literature. A concept is a generalized idea that can be used as a flynet to organize many related particular findings (Bhattacherjee, 2012, p. 10). For instance, if a paper finds a stark underrepresentation of arts students in clubs, consider categorizing this finding as an example of arts insularity: the tendency of arts students to isolate from one another. This way if you find other papers that report similar findings, you will be able to easily summarize the related findings together under low extracurricular participation and arts. Be careful, however, not to use concepts as evidence. You should always be able to unpack the evidence for your reader. Your literature review should balance breadth and coherence. Examples from a wide range of contexts will provide you breadth and the ability to organize these experiences cogently with regard to your research question will provide coherence.

Another key thing to note here is to be careful and informed about quantitative techniques for reporting findings. If while reading you find statistics/equations you do not understand, refer to proofs of that equation and the methods or notes section of a statistics paper. Here you should find a detailed explanation of the mathematical techniques used to derive a statistic from raw datum. Alternatively, look at any charts of the raw data in order to find the basic datum. From these charts you can derive your own conclusions about the statistical representation of the study. Select the evidence which you can verify, and attempt to understand statistics that you cannot immediately, but if it still does not make sense, focus on that which you know and avoid adding evidence to your paper that you do not understand.

How did it Find This?

Ask how the research comes to this finding (What is its research question? The context is investigating/responding to? What are the methods that are being used?).

When evaluating the value of the finding, it is important to also consider the methods that the researcher is using and the context they are responding to. This will allow you to consider if the findings are either reliable or comparable to your own study. For instance, a paper that interviews nine upper-class people in Italy for their experience facing gender discrimination may be more unrelated to your country-wide survey in Burma of the same experience. To best find studies closely related to your own, try to begin with ones that have a similar method and context as your own, expanding only when nothing is out there (if there proves to be no literature, then here is your gap!).

Ask when this research was conducted (Was it done 30 years ago? Are the findings still relevant?). A key aspect of the context of a study is of course when it was produced. Moreover, as academic literature is expected to be highly interactive with the studies that came before it, the lineage of prominent concepts is itself indicative. For instance, suppose Naomi Klein’s (2007) concept of the “shock doctrine” is taken up and slightly modified for the purpose of later scholars trying to explain the economic aid techniques used by imperialist regimes to establish foreign dependence, which we will call “acts of economic defibrillation.” Considering the time of the response and the time of the context they are employing this term, we can ask why “economic defibrillation” arose to explain new developments, how it differs from Klein’s originating idea, and whether it applies to the context we are attempting to understand.

Where can I Situate This?

Ask where this study is situated with respect to your other literature. (What concepts does it share with other papers? Does it contest any other research?).

Answering question five is the most crucial in the actual composition of the literature review, and it will test the extent to which you answered the preceding questions. Judging the findings, methods and context of each paper, you should begin to consider how the literature relates to other studies and your own. This step entails that your literature review not simply be a static grocery list of summaries, but must rather attempt to interact with the rest of the literature. A good way to do this is to create a list of concepts correlated to your literature and then add the authors. Then when you go to compose the literature review, you will have a list of the key concepts you think are discussed in the literature and the position of each scholar who comments on it. For an enlarged discussion of concept mapping, check out Canas & Novak (2009).

Table 6.1 - Reading and Note Taking Tips
Crucial Note-taking Questions Further Elaboration
Why is this important for answering your research question? Do the findings support or deny your hypothesis?

Do their methods miss out on a key element?

Do you contest the theoretical explanation of their findings?

Is this key background information?

What does this research find ? What is the key finding in this investigation?

How do the findings relate to the key concepts in the field?

Do I understand the findings and interpretations?

How does the research come to this finding? What is its research question?

The context is investigating/responding to?

What are the methods that are being used?

When was this research conducted? What has changed since the work was done?

How significant are those changes?

Is the research still useful? In what ways?

Where is this study situated in respect to other literature? What concepts does it share with other papers?

Does it contest any other research?

Box 6.2 – Student Testimonial – Doing Literature Reviews with NVIVO
There is no going back to a sore wrist and messy jottings after trying NVivo for the literature review. NVivo is a textual data software tool that will track and organize all your codes, annotations, and cases according to their document. In NVivo, you can upload and read your articles just as you would in a pdf reader, but this time your highlights and annotations can be organized by themes established by you. Thus, when you return to the writing stage of your literature review, all the key quotations and insights you have developed through your reading will be saved in one tidy spot. NVivo does not replace thought, of course, but what it takes from the time needed to write and organize, it frees up for critical thought about your readings. This software is available for free for UBC students.
Once you have downloaded the software and opened it up (go to link above for instructions), here is a checklist of what you will need to do to get the basics of your project going:

  1. Select New Project
  2. Search the literature you want on your library network and download into pdf form on your computer (if they do not have a pdf form, you can take notes on NVivo and add it to your other codes).
  3. Once your literature is uploaded to your computer, go to the “import” function on the top left of NVivo, select “files” and upload your pdf’s. I would name every file according to APA in-text citation for easy use (i.e. Robinson, 2016).
  4. Go to the “create” function and create a “file classification.” Use the “file classifications” to delineate the categories of your articles. (For instance, for my Uber thesis, my articles broadly addressed four topics: Uber history, Taxi history, Uber’s rhetoric, and Uber’s ahistorical depiction).
  5. Once you have organized your articles, simply click on one and start reading! As your reading, use the annotate and coding functions on the top left of your screen to interpret your article. The coding function will allow you to highlight quotes from the article and organize them under one theme. The annotated function will organize your comments on the article into once section under notes.
  6. When writing, return to the “codes” section to a list of the direct quotes and annotations from your readings to pull from!
  7. Check out this video from QSR NVivo International for a more comprehensive overview

Alexander Wilson, UBC Sociology Honours student, 2020-2021



Bhattacherjee, Anol. (2012). Social Science Research: Principles, Methods, and Practices. https://scholarcommons.usf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?referer=&httpsredir=1&article=1002&context=oa_textbooks

Pacheco-Vega, R. (2016). “How to do a Literature Review: Citation-tracing, concept saturation, and results’ mind-mapping.” Website. Retrieved from http://www.raulpacheco.org/2016/06/how-to-do-a-literature-review-citation-tracing-concept-saturation-and-results-mind-mapping/?utm_content=buffer25e83&utm_medium=social&utm_source=twitter.com&utm_campaign=buffer

Pautasso, M. (2013). “Ten Simple Rules for Writing a Literature Review.” PLOS Computational Biology. Retrieved from https://journals.plos.org/ploscompbiol/article/authors?id=10.1371/journal.pcbi.1003149.

Ravei, K., & Harper, T. (2020/2021). “Writing A Literature Review.” UCLA WIRE. Retrieved from MERLOT https://uclalibrary.github.io/research-tips/workshops/writing-a-literature-review/

Rutjens, B. T., & van der Lee, R. (2020). Spiritual skepticism? Heterogeneous science skepticism in the Netherlands. Public Understanding of Science, 29(3), 335-352.

Kennesaw State University. “Literature and Concept Mapping.” Retrieved from https://libguides.kennesaw.edu/lr/proposal

Klein, N. (2007). The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism. Knopf Canada.



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