For many students, approaching their literature review can be somewhat daunting. There is likely to be a large amount of information available which can inform your dissertation. The key is to think of the literature review as forming a strong foundation on which to build your empirical work.
What is the purpose of your literature review? A good literature review will cover the main literature in a field (it will never be exhaustive) to identify what is already known about your topic. This will help you to identify the gaps in knowledge. The literature review will also help you to develop focused research aim, objectives and research questions.
Importantly, you will need to consider a theoretical underpinning for your work. This enables your research to engage analytically with the problem identified. Simply, it allows you to move from describing a problem, to considering an explanation.
There are different approaches to structuring a literature review. I usually suggest a funnel approach which takes the reader from a general perspective of the topic (including setting out the problem) towards a narrower focus – i.e. the particular focus of your work. Remember that you need to take the reader by the hand and carefully walk them towards your research aim and objectives. A good structure will help to reveal the logic of your chosen topic.
When you approach the literature, the volume of information can be overwhelming. You may find it helpful to think of this stage in terms of a form of analysis – read through the various sources of literature and identify emerging themes. Some researchers even code their literature using a qualitative software package such as NVivo. Once you have your overarching themes you can decide how you want to arrange your literature review. There are no hard or fast rules, but it must work for your topic. Draft a structure and be open to changing it. Often it’s only once we start to write that we realise our predetermined ideas don’t work.
Types of literature (not exhaustive)
Peer-reviewed: these are often journal articles/papers. They have been through a rigorous period of review by experts in the field. This can include rounds of revisions which are designed to strengthen the paper. Some books may be also be peer-reviewed. Conference papers often go through some form of peer-review, but often not to the same degree as journal papers.
Grey literature: literature published outside of traditional academic or commercial publishers – this may be produced by academics, researchers outside of academia, government, industry reports. These are generally not peer-reviewed, but can offer some useful background material for example, statistics, details of policy and legislative interventions
Media: you may wish to consider media reports e.g. newspaper articles, industry magazines. These can provide some useful context material.
Often you will find this material online through various databases (see HWU database guide), although you may still need to locate hard copies of useful material.
Make sure that you keep a record of everything you read/cite – there are software packages to help with this, for example Endnote. You should also take written or typed notes of your reading. It can be frustrating to forget who wrote something important and you don’t want to risk plagiarism. Find out which referencing system is preferred for your department/school.
This is a creative process and there is a degree of trial and error involved. If you’re interested in your topic, this will be a much more enjoyable process. If there are pieces of work which are difficult to understand, don’t assume that the problem rests with you. It’s likely that the research is hard to understand! It can help to find work which has cited the difficult study, see what they have to say about it, and then return to the original work.
Finally, don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor questions!