Structuring a literature review

To decide how to structure your literature review, it's helpful to first of all consider its purpose and what it is that you want to argue about the strengths and weaknesses of existing research. Having an argument about the literature is vital; the absence of an argument means that you'll simply be summarising what others have said about your research topic uncritically. Make it clear to readers how your research fits within the literature and the nature of your contribution to furthering knowledge (whether it builds on what others have already done or challenges exisiting understandings and approaches).

Considering the purpose and argument / key message of your literature review helps you to focus your review on what's relevant and needs to be covered, what's unnecessary and therefore can be excluded, and it can help you to decide how to sequence your ideas. If your purpose is to persuade your readers of your project's value and contribution to the field, and your argument is that there is a gap in the field that your research fills, then your structure should lead the readers logically to this conclusion. 

Like any other chapter, a literature review chapter or section should have an introduction that tells the reader what your argument is. Knowing your argument upfront can help your reader to understand why you are leading them through your selected bodies of literature and concepts.

After the introduction, a literature review often moves broadly from what is well known in the field and narrows down to what is less well known, which is where your research gap or issue is located. Your literature review may draw on different bodies of literature and show how they are relevant and are connected. To work out how best to order your discussion, consider the following questions.

  • Which bodies of literature have the broadest or most narrow scope?
  • Which bodies of literature are most commonly used in the field/s?
  • Which concepts are most widely agreed upon?
  • What are the strengths and weaknesses of the commonly used literature, and which of these does my study build on?
  • What is the less well known literature that my study relates to?
  • Are there studies / aspects of the literature that are minor or tangential within the field/s, but are important to my study?
  • How can I convince my readers that this is a worthwhile area to investigate?
  • If drawing on literature from different fields, how are they connected? Why am I connecting them?
  • What are the studies that are the closest to mine? What are the strengths and weaknesses of these studies?
  • What are the common themes in the literature? Can I sequence them from the most common themes down to the themes that are closely connected to my study?

One useful way to plan the structure of your literature review is to brainstorm, draw, and / or do a mind-map. Identify how the different concepts and bodies of literature fit together and how your study builds on them. This can show you logical ways to put your literature review together, as well as give you some ideas about how you can explain to your readers how the various parts fit together. You can also try to explain your literature review structure to someone who knows little about the field, to test whether it is clear and logical.

Language of literature reviews>>