Literature Reviews

Focusing on what to keep and what to discard is important. This article describes how you can achieve this task.

On almost any topic you can think of there will be a wealth of information in all forms, in books, on the Internet and other media.

In undertaking a literature review, therefore, it is important to identify precisely the topic or area of a topic that you want to cover so that you can present your findings and conclusions concisely. While it is important to include topics around the one you are studying, do not be too broad in your peripheral inclusion or your message and the salient points of your review may be lost (Cooper, 1988).

The first thing to consider is what is already known about this subject, and who are the main voices in the field; their work should be prominently featured. Start with the earliest exponents of the subject and work up to the present day. Try to focus on any consensus that has been drawn over the years of research and any aspect of the subject that have been the focus of debate. For example in Criminology an early theory of the Chicago School, Bulmer (1984) was the ‘Labelling theory’ that put forward the premise that if a person or a community was ‘labelled’ they would live up to the label given to them. This theory is still a mainstay of those involved in the modern day application of criminological theory.

It is also worth identifying any areas within the topic that represent a gap in knowledge or that have opposing positions. This will be a chance for you to show your understanding of the subject by putting forward your own ideas and asking your own questions. Take note of any paradigms that apply to research in the subject and analyse critically, making comparisons to other work in the area and drawing your own conclusions where possible. Do not be afraid to include some less conventional references but do not rely on these. The review must consist, in the main, of established authorities on the subject and the received wisdom as understood by those studying your subject (Delinger, 2007).

Don’t forget that a literature review is the study of the work that has already been done on a topic. Make sure you report correctly, give credit for the sources you use, and show that you have understood the message that the literature you have studied aims to give. Just quoting chapter and verse without drawing any conclusions of your own will not do. Remember that the end of your review should summarise what you have read and leave the reader with questions to answer and concepts to dwell upon.


Bulmer, Martin. (1984). The Chicago School of Sociology: Institutionalization, Diversity, and the Rise of Sociological Research. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Cooper, H.M. (1988): The structure of knowledge synthesis, Knowledge in Society, vol. 1, pp, 104-126.

Dellinger, A. B. & Leech, N. L. (2007). Toward a Unified Validation Framework in Mixed Methods Research. Journal of Mixed Methods Research, Vol. 1, No. 4, 309-332.


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