Literature Reviews

A literature review examines the different ways in which various scholars have approached a topic. Unlike a research paper, the main focus of a literature review is not to develop an original argument; instead, its focus is to synthesize and evaluate the arguments and ideas of others. It should give readers a detailed overview of the major trends in the scholarship on a topic, and it should link and critique the arguments of each of those works. After reading your literature review, a person should be able to list the major schools of interpretation of your topic, and should have a good understanding of the reasons why scholars have adopted each of those approaches.

Framing Sources

Academic research writing requires you to incorporate outside sources with your own ideas. Effective reading and summarizing of sources can increase your knowledge about a subject, build your ethos as a writer, and allow you to become part of the larger conversations within your discipline.

Research can be seen as a conversation between various researchers and audiences. By framing the sources you use, you put your own ideas into dialogue with the ideas of others while clearly giving them credit.

Here are some ideas for going through the process:

  • Find reliable sources about your topic.
  • Read and take notes to understand what all those sources—the literature—say about your topic (See the “Summaries” handout, i.e., the Says/Does method.)
  • Think about how that literature relates to your research—Contradicts? Supports?
  • Indicates a question that needs answering? 
  • After organizing the information, you can begin to draft your review. 
  • Be sure to cite your sources as you draft and continually update your bibliography or works cited. (See the “Source Integration” handout and a reference website or handbook that has the appropriate citation conventions (APA, MLA, Chicago, etc.).)
  • Finish your draft, then review and revise it. Have someone else review it. Revise it again as many times as needed. Finally, proofread it carefully.

Process

  1. Find a focus. A literature review is organized around ideas: you will not just simply list your articles and go into detail about each one of them, one at a time. As you read widely but selectively about your topic, consider what themes or issues connect the articles. Do they present one or different approaches or frameworks? Is there an aspect that is missing in these different approaches?
  2. Construct a working thesis statement. Literature reviews have a thesis statement. However, your thesis statement will not necessarily argue for a position or an opinion. Instead it will argue for a particular perspective on the material.
  3. Consider organization. You’ve got a focus, and you’ve narrowed it down to a thesis statement. Now what is the most effective way of presenting the information? What are the most important topics, subtopics, etc., that your review needs to include? And in what order should you present them? Literature reviews must contain at least three basic elements: an introduction or background information section; the body of the review containing the discussion of sources; and, finally, a conclusion to end the paper. The body can be organized:
    • Chronologically
    • Thematically
    • Methodologically
  4. Begin Writing. Once you’ve settled on a general pattern of organization, you’re ready to write each section.
    • Use evidence. A literature review in this sense is just like any other academic research paper. Your interpretation of the available sources must be backed up with evidence to show that what you are saying is valid.
    • Be selective. Select only the most important points in each source to highlight in the review. The type of information you choose to mention should relate directly to the review’s focus, whether it is thematic, methodological, or chronological.
    • Use quotes sparingly. The survey nature of the literature review does not allow for in-depth discussion or detailed quotes from the text. Some short quotes here and there are okay, though, if you want to emphasize a point, or if the author's prose simply cannot be rewritten in your own words.
  5. Revise, Revise, Revise.

Examples

Below is a sample of a thesis statement in a literature review:


While it is possible to perceive certain common theoretical concerns and narrative strategies among recent works on gender in Latin America produced in the United States—including the near universal adoption of the term “gender”—this is more difficult to do with the more varied recent Latin American scholarship. I will argue, however, that it is possible to trace in very broad strokes the development of certain scholarly trends in the international literature on women and gender in Latin America over the past three decades, in which Latin American production plays a leading role. In synthesizing both political processes and scholarship on the region as a whole, I will inevitably overlook or even distort debates and contributions that are crucial to distinct national cases.

In the sample below, the author organizes the review chronologically and methodologically. The writer also refers to several other sources when making the point:


With these limitations in mind, this essay will examine the history of political and scholarly trends that have influenced gender analysis in the historiography of Latin America (excluding the French- and English-speaking Caribbean). I see this history as falling into three overlapping periods. The first covers the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, when initial efforts were made to carve out a space for historical perspectives within the burgeoning field of Latin American women’s studies.