Literature reviews come in many shapes and sizes, and may be placed in different areas in different theses. However, for most projects, the literature review usually has one overall purpose: to provide a rationale for your research in terms of what has gone before.
The purpose of a traditional literature review is to demonstrate a gap or problem in your field that your research seeks to address. The importance of addressing the gap for your field or discipline must not be assumed but persuasively demonstrated. Indeed, explaining why there is a need for filling the gap helps you to justify your work’s value, originality and significance.
To establish your credibility as a scholar, your literature review will typically need to do at least some (if not all) of the following effectively.
- Demonstrate that your research is rigorous and up-to-date by enagaging with seminal and current work
- Summarise relevant bodies of work and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses to demonstrate your critical understanding of the literature.
- Point out gaps in the literature or identify problems / issues remaining to be solved.
- Justify the choice of topic/area of research, to establish the value of the research and the nature of the contribution you expect to make to the research field.
- Highlight key issues essential to your own research.
- Synthesise the main themes and arguments of a particular body of literature.
- Develop an argument in the process of reviewing the literature
- Produce a brief historical survey or other context information in order to situate your research.
The literature review helps you to establish the nature of your contribution to knoweldge. The type of contribution differs from project to project. The list below gives a variety of ways in which different projects can contribute to different fields. Does your project fit into any of these categories?
- Filling a significant gap in the research (could be almost anything).
- Challenging prevailing methodologies, theories or test procedures.
- Continuing an ongoing line of enquiry (common in the experimental sciences).
- Developing new experimental procedures or perhaps a model.
- Developing new products, software or technology (perhaps for industry).
- Using established techniques or approaches in a new context (common in area studies).
- Providing extensive new data (common in field research).
- Producing a portfolio of creative work with an accompanying exegesis.
- Presenting studio work or performance presentations, as in some arts.
- Writing a biography (perhaps in History or English).
- Setting up a comprehensive practical study for professional development purposes.
- Doing a comprehensive analysis of issues in new, and important, policy proposals.
- Documenting a language (perhaps in Linguistics).
Whichever type of contribution you’re making, your literature review should establish the need for your contribution.