37 Demystifying the Literature Review

When someone asks you to “consult the literature” on a given topic, they are asking you to find and reference what has been said by scholars on the issue (Ravei & Harper, 2020). This can be effectively used to establish background knowledge on almost any topic, but in research this consultation must go a step further. A literature review not only provides an overview of what has been said on the topic of inquiry, but also critically examines what has been said for its ambiguities, faults, and holes (all termed as the “gaps” in the literature). As mentioned in Chapter 1, gaps in the literature are instances where there is scope for further research either because data is missing, under-explored or out-dated. This could mean that a population or sub-population has not been researched or a theory, method or specific analytical strategy has not been applied. In pointing out what is missing and what is contested, you find out where you can add to the literature. Your contribution could be to clarify important confusions through adding a key dimension of the topic that has been missed, or nuancing a theory with supporting and/or contradictory evidence (Pautausso, 2013). Throughout the literature review process, your judgment on what is important will guide you to a concise and forceful account of the literature which informs your study, so be careful to cultivate your own preferences and opinion with regard to the literature you read.

Components of the Literature Review

Literature reviews have three basic components: introduction, body and conclusion:

  1. Introduction or background information section. This is a summary of key themes, organization and issues that will be addressed relative to the research question. It is also advisable to include a thesis statement in your literature review. Remember that a good thesis statement offers a position on an issue, i.e., your central ideas or arguments (often one that contests or defends an existing argument or advances new ideas with supporting evidence). Note that this is different from a summary or an outline of the chapter. See https://wiki.ubc.ca/images/4/4a/Thesis_Statements.pdf for tips and examples of how to write thesis statements.
  2. The body of the review, which is arranged according to one of the strategies above, and provides detailed discussion of the sources. It is important to note that you are not just listing sources, but you adopt an analytical voice (see Chapter 5) and you are synthesizing ideas. Your readers should be able to see the connection between your literature and your research question as well as how your ideas fit within the wider discussion.
  3. Conclusions/Recommendations: You need to finish the literature review by highlighting what conclusion can be drawn from your discussion so far, reiterate the gaps and position the rest of the thesis to help address the gaps. You should also make recommendations on where future studies could go, if you are not attempting to close the gaps.

Types of and Strategies for Structuring Literature Reviews

As mentioned in Chapter 1, there are two broad categories of dissertations: empirical and theoretical. Empirical studies entails systematically observing social phenomena and or measuring constructs to demonstrate relationships among variables (e.g. what are immigrants’ perceptions about political correctness and its impacts on their integration in host societies?). A theoretical study, on the other hand, is based on testing, exploring or developing arguments or theories, and it generally involves observation or the compilation of information (e.g., does a transnational theory of immigration offer a better explanation of the impact of political correctness on immigrant integration than critical theory?). Most undergraduate students in the social sciences will develop empirical research questions (strategy based on the systematic observation of phenomena). The literature reviews informed by these questions tend to focus on existing findings (empirical observations) and identifying theories to explain those observations.

Theoretical theses are focused on the selection of social artifacts, ideas, theories and other secondary data to make an argument or to critique, expand, evaluate, compare or make applications of a theory(ies).
The kind of research question (empirical or theoretical) that you are investigating will influence the way that you structure your thesis. The University of Alabama’ Library (2019) catalogues the following strategies for structuring literature reviews:

  • Systematic Review: Most empirical literature reviews follow this format, wherein, the writing is structured with an overview of existing evidence (findings) as they relate to your research question. In essence, they draw on previously published empirical observations, noting their methods, findings and analyses. These reviews aim to identify clear relationships between the variables of interest. This means that the literature review is often structured around themes and variables. An example of this is thematic reviews, which are organized around a topic, trends or issue or even the progression of time (if that is a theme in the study) (University of Alabama, 2019).
  • Argumentative Reviews, wherein the literature is selectively examined with the goal of supporting or refuting an argument, deeply embedded assumption or a “philosophical problem already established in the literature.” These kinds of literature reviews aim to establish a body of literature that contradicts existing viewpoints. Care must be taken to show the merits of both sides of the arguments. While theoretical theses primarily structure their literature reviews in this way, aspects of empirical literature reviews can be structured around specific arguments. The important thing is to establish a voice and clearly demonstrate how the discussion fits with your thesis and the contribution you are hoping to make.
  • Theoretical Reviews aim to comprehensively examine a theory and the work, concepts, phenomena that it has inspired. These literature reviews are focused on evaluating existing theories with the goal of developing new hypotheses to be tested. These reviews might reveal that existing theories are inadequate for analyzing new or emerging social problems. This is a more difficult undertaking for undergraduate students, but there is enough merit in comparing existing theories and their applications to a social problem as a project.
  • Chronological or Historical Reviews are useful when trying to show how the literature has evolved over time. For example, one might start with older theories or research and discuss how they have been refined and developed overtime. Alternatively, you could write about the materials according to when they were published. This is useful if there is a clear chronological order in development of the scholarship on the issue. These reviews often start with the origin of an “issue, concept, theory, or phenomena in the literature, then tracing its evolution within the scholarship of a discipline” (University of Alabama, 2019). This is important in showing the likely direction of the field.
  • Methodological Reviews focus primarily on how phenomena have been studied (methodologies) not on the findings themselves. Usually, the goal is to develop new methods or refine existing ones. It is unlikely that this will be your goal in an undergraduate thesis but you may still organize your literature review methodology. For example, if a phenomena has been studied using a variety of methods, you may wish to compare the methodological impacts of the findings. Such an approach could be useful in justifying your own methodological choice.

There is no need to commit immediately to one strategy for organizing your literature review. As you gather the literature, you should be able to discern how best to present them. Bear in mind that you can use a mixture of approaches e.g., you could start out chronologically then arrange the findings by themes or by findings. The key to note is that there are no strict rules here, you can be creative, provided it is coherent. You should also discuss your plans with your supervisor.


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/

University of Alabama. (2019). How to Conduct a Literature Review: Types of Literature Reviews. https://guides.lib.ua.edu/literaturereview



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