Grokking the literature review

I have to admit that I’m liking the literature review process, the more I understand the right approach. Having said that, I’ve not really done what could be classified as a real literature review yet. I did a very surface one (which could only really be called a minor literature summary) when I did my preliminary thesis proposal a couple months ago to get my topic approved. I am presently starting with that version to flesh out a better one for my official thesis proposal in the last of my cohort classes. When I launch into my full thesis phase in July, I’ll build on the version I’m doing now yet again.

I realize now that I had been thinking wrongly when I approached the literature review as a general reading of related literature, tying it together so as to quote things I thought were relevant, but without what I would really consider any kind of critical analysis. As I’ve been reading journal articles and relevant chapters of a couple research texts, it’s becoming much clearer to me how to read more effectively and how to understand why the process is so important to situating and contextualizing the research I will be performing myself. In fact, I’m now understanding how I’ll be able to finalize my topic and questions ONLY if I do a decent literature review.

Boote and Beile (2005, p.4) state that the literature review should:

set the broad context of the study, clearly demarcate what is and is not within the scope of the investigation, and justify those decisions.

They go on to say that it should also:

report the claims made in the existing literature and examine critically the research methods used to better understand whether the claims are warranted.

Similarly, Knopf (2006, p.127) suggests that, when determining whether a particular approach to some problem has been successful, one can:

focus on the ‘lessons learned’ from a previous effort to deal with a certain problem (and those lessons learned might have been proposed by outside scholars or by practitioners themselves).

Developing a topic and questions

Getting to the point of a really good research topic and questions which truly operationalize it is no small task. In particular, I’ve come to the realization that you won’t land on the final versions until you’ve concluded the literature review for your proposal. It’s also clear that the topic and questions may easily get revised again when further literature review is done for my thesis. This is because, provided you look at the literature critically, you’ll start to really see where the gaps exist and what methods were used to produce the various findings – exactly what you need to determine what you want to look at. If something has been studied to death, you have a lower chance of adding much value to existing knowledge, whereas figuring out that some aspect of a topic has been poorly analyzed may actually give you a better way to approach your research.

In getting to the point of being able to move forward with a researchable topic, Rugg and Petre (2007, p.55), have a good bullet list of the things you should be able to do when you’ve conducted your initial search of the literature. You should be able to answer the following questions:

  • What is the problem you are tackling?
  • What is it academically significant?
  • What are the main things that have been tried before?
  • Who tried them?
  • Why didn’t those approaches work?
  • What are you going to do that’s different?
  • Where did you get that idea from?
  • What evidence is there to suggest that this might work better?
  • If it doesn’t work, will the finding be useful or just make you look like an idiot?

In particular, I like the last question. I’d have to say the biggest risk I’m feeling as I read a ton of articles this week (other than that of not getting my proposal literature review done by Sunday), is that of doing something that hasn’t got the academic merit I’m hoping for.

I’d really rather that the next year of my life isn’t spent on something that makes me look foolish. I can do that easily in many other areas of my life.


  • Boote, D.N., & Beile, P. (2005). Scholars before researchers: On the centrality of the dissertation literature review in research preparation. Educational Researcher, (34)6.
  • Knopf, J.W. (2006). Doing a literature review. Political Science & Politics, 39(1).
  • Rugg, G., & Petre, M. (2007). A gentle guide to research methods. Birkshire: McGraw-Hill/Open University Press.