Literature review : What is it and why it matters? When to conduct one?

For those who are in the business of writing for academic journals, the word ‘literature review’ can bring to mind a few memories, which include dread, fear or excitement. Dread, simply because of the amount of material you have to read, to do a good literature or lit. review. In other words, it is not a ‘quick and dirty method’ of scanning all that has been written about a certain topic. Though, there are methods to speed up the process.


In this post, I will tackle two inter-related questions: how to carry out a literature review and more importantly, when to carry it out? Both these are questions confined in the context of writing a research paper. For a more elaborate project like a thesis, this process will be much more elaborate; though the principles will be the same.

Jefferey Knopf in his journal article How to do a Literature Review offers the following advice, which I find particularly helpful. He says that a lit. review should serve a few functions:

  1. Summarize the findings of major studies carried out, thus far
  2. Point out what is right, what is wrong and what can be improved, in the existing body of knowledge.
  3. Build your arguments and offer your insights on how this gap can be fixed.

(Source : Knopf, J.  Political Science and Politics, Vol. 39, No. 1 (Jan., 2006), pp. 127-132)


You can find similar advice in a book, which is considered a classic. How to read a book, by Mortimer Adler and Charles Van Doren is a classic and for good reason. It gives you strategies on how to really read a book, look for and identify the key arguments and analyze its strength. What they say about analyzing the arguments is similar to what Knopf has suggested about looking for arguments, analyzing them in light of what you know and evaluating them.




Types of paper: qualitative, quantitative or mixed methods

How you go about doing a literature review depends on the type of paper you are writing. For instance, if you are writing a qualitative, inductive paper; where theory is being built, as you write and do more research – then it may make sense to have an iterative approach to literature review. It will be an open ended approach driven by your insights and what you think is important.  In other words, this approach would be ideal for a qualitative paper. You may start with the top scholars in a field, look at the books they have written and cite, and then branch out from there – an open ended approach, if you will.

Opposed to this is the quantitative paper, where your approach will need to be driven by hypothesis. In this case, you are testing hypothesis or even a theory – which means your approach will be narrow and reductionist. You are not interested in all approaches or theories, but only ones that answer your specific hypothesis. This means that you are narrowing down your literature review, from the very beginning.

Consider how each of these approaches is different.

Finally, there are approaches such as grounded theory – where it is a mix of approaches. You first gather data, build theory – which is iterative as well – and then go on to do literature review on each of the ‘patterns’ or ideas that emerge from your initial analysis.

More on this in my next few posts. Shoot me an email, if you have questions.


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