What is a literature review?
A literature review is a critical survey of the academic publications and research on a particular topic. A literature review is often, but not always, part of a larger research project.
McMillan and Schumacher (2000) identified 5 purposes of the literature review. A literature review allows you to:
If it is part of a larger research project, the literature review helps you to identify the parameters of your study. Most research areas are broad: a literature review allows you to identify the key issues within a broad research area so that you can define an area of interest which you might pursue.
Unless you are aware of the work of others, you cannot build upon an established foundation. A literature review can highlight gaps in current thinking and help position your research as part of the bigger picture of emerging knowledge in your chosen field.
Sometimes it is appropriate to replicate a previous study, but this should be done intentionally and for a particular purpose. A literature review helps you to make informed choices about a research topic within a scholarly context.
The success or failure of previous investigations can provide useful material for you when you are designing your own research methodology. You can assess what has worked before (or not worked) in previous contexts and why. You may be alerted to new methodologies and procedures.
The findings of your own research need to be related back to earlier studies. This places your work and can point to areas that need further investigation. Your thesis is much more a coherent whole if your discussion section draws on and contrasts with your literature review.
References and further reading
Craswell, G. (2005). Writing for academic success: A postgraduate guide. London, United Kingdom: Sage Publications.
Hart, C. (1998). Doing a literature review: Releasing the social science research imagination. London, United Kingdom: Sage Publications.
McMillan, J. H. & Schumacher, S. (2000). Research in education: A conceptual introduction (5th ed). New York, NY: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers.
Ridley, D. (2008). The literature review: A step-by-step guide for students. London, United Kingdom: Sage.