How do you know where you going if you don’t know where you’ve been? A literature review shows the reader where your research is coming from, and how it is situated in relation to prior scholarship. Attention is necessarily given to literature about the research problem, which places the study in one or more disciplines. To situate the study within a scholarly milieu, we must also review literature about methods, methodology, and theory. This is a focus for March on MethodSpace: reviewing literature to situate it in a research tradition. Find the whole series here.
What is a literature review?
Literature reviews are foundational to research proposals, theses and dissertations, as well as scholarly books and articles. In addition to their place within larger pieces of writing, literature reviews are also published as a type of free-standing article.
Let’s use a simple definition for a literature review: “a systematic syntheses of previous work around a particular topic” (Salkind, 2010, p. 726) . The key words suggest questions we need to answer:
- What systems will we use to find, organize, and analyze the literature?
- How will we synthesize the literature?
- Which previous work should be included or excluded?
- What topics are relevant?
Specific to a review of methodology and methods literature, we might ask:
- What systems will we use to find, organize, and analyze literature about the methodology and methods central to the study? How can we find the respected methodologists and theorists whose work is most relevant to our research? Does it make sense to organize this literature chronologically, or thematically?
- How will we synthesize the literature? What critical questions should we ask? How can we pull essential concepts, theoretical constructs, and methods practices from different sources to substantiate design decisions regarding the research approach?
- Which previous work should be included or excluded? Whose thinking should inform the approaches we use in our own research? Who are the respected methodologists and theorists in this type of research? Do these thinkers agree or disagree, if so, why? Are there multiple schools of thought that we should consider? How do we define “previous” in terms of time frame, how far should we go back? How do we think about previous work when we are using emerging methods?
- What topics are relevant? How do I find methodological and methods literature that fits the study?
We’ll explore each of these questions and offer practical suggestions in a series of posts. Use the comment area to add your own questions or suggestions!
Salkind, N. J. (2010). Literature review Encyclopedia of Research Design. Thousand Oaks, California.