How to write a dissertation literature review

Writing a Literature Review for a Dissertation 

Why is it important to write a literature review?

Writing a literature review is one of the most challenging and difficult parts of a dissertation. However, it is also the most essential. There are several reasons for this. Firstly, it familiarises you with the breadth of knowledge that exists on your chosen topic, providing a crucial background to your research and situating it within a broader historical context. Secondly, it illuminates the particular theories that have been applied within your subject area and the methods that have been commonly employed. Thirdly, it enables you to identify weaknesses in existing research, whether this be methodological flaws, theoretical inconsistencies, apparent omissions or aspects that remain largely overlooked, and unresolved debates. This latter point is crucial, as it is inextricably linked to the fourth aim, which is to identify existing gaps in the literature that need to be filled. It is through the identification of such gaps that the fifth and most important aim of your literature review is fulfilled; namely, to provide a clear and well-reasoned justification for your research. Based on this rationale, you can then formulate concise and focused research questions (or hypotheses, depending on the methodology employed) which you will then address through your dissertation.  

How do I go about carrying out a literature review?

Having decided upon your topic, your first task is to identify the existing literature that has been published. This requires carrying out a search using online databases such as PsycINFO, PubMed, Cinahl, Scopus and Web of Science. Some may be more useful than others; it depends on the field in which you are interested. There is likely to be an abundance of work available, so you will need to search these databases using key terms related to your chosen topic. These can be single words or a set of words linked using Boolean operators such as ‘OR’ and ‘AND’. You can also focus your search by selecting articles focusing on a particular cohort of participants, a specific methodology, or a particular design. To ensure the work you obtain is up-to-date, it is best to start by searching for articles that have been published in the last ten years. If your initial searches do not generate many articles, you can always broaden your search. More likely, you will return numerous papers, and will need to focus your search even more carefully. The most important thing, however, is ensuring you do not overlook key material by focusing so broadly on a topic that you cannot see the wood for the trees. Especially helpful at this stage is to look for meta-analyses or systematic reviews, as these will cover many of the relevant papers and offer a useful evaluation that you can then draw upon.

The next stage is to then read the abstracts of the papers you have identified and select those you consider most relevant. You will then need to obtain full-text versions of these articles, which should be possible through most university libraries. Having acquired a comprehensive set of articles, your next step is to read them. This should be a very active process, one that involves noting down the main issues addressed, the approaches adopted, the participants involved, the core findings, the limitations identified, and suggested areas for future research. You could, theoretically, then present these studies sequentially in your literature review. However, this makes for a very dull review, and offers little in the way of a clear rationale for your dissertation. Instead, you should try and synthesise the findings (Is there a general consensus? What differences exist, and why?), integrate existing work in terms of the approaches employed (Do they contrast? Are some more effective than others?) and the design/participants (Do these vary? How does this impact the outcomes), and consider the theoretical frameworks adopted (Are they consistently applied? How useful are they?). Next, ask yourself the following: What has been poorly explained? Would an alternative theory/method be better? Have certain aspects/areas been overlooked? What you are effectively doing is critically evaluating the literature, which will form an excellent basis for your own research. 

Writing up the literature review

The next stage is to put it all together in order to tell a coherent ‘story’ that provides a clear justification for your research. Ideally, you should structure this in the form of an hourglass. You should begin your review with a clear statement of the subject area and/or problem you are going to focus upon. This tells the reader exactly what the work is about. Next, you need to tell them how you reached this point, which means going from the specific to the general; that is, acquainting them with the scope of existing work on this topic. Depending on the subject matter, you can structure your review using headings that relate to particular theories, methods, core concepts, or important issues/debates. This is where all your hard work in the previous section bears fruit, as you will be able to select and integrate key findings that relate to each heading, highlighting any weaknesses and limitations as you do so. The sense of tension this injects into you work will keep the reader interested – they will be keen to know where you are heading and how you are going to add something new to the field. Having acquainted the reader with the current state of play, you now need to return to the specific focus of your work. Summarise what you have covered and draw out the most salient points, highlighting these as the areas you are going to address, with a brief recap as to why. This is the rationale for your research. Based on this, you need to clearly and concisely formulate one or more research questions (or hypotheses). Make sure, however, that answering them will meet the stated aims of your research as set out at the beginning of your literature review. Armed with a clear strategy, you are now in a position to present your methodology.

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