A literature review helps you figure out what scholars, what studies, and what questions your project is in conversation with. It typically happens in stages throughout the life of your project – it is not something you do once and are then finished with!
This guide explores how to think about and do a literature review at four different stages of a project. Professor Wendy Cadge suggests how to think about each step (see below). Librarian Gina Bastone describes how specifically to do it (see tabs).
The first time I do a literature review is when I am thinking about possible research topics and questions and want to know what people have written about these questions and what they have found. I search the topics and questions broadly aiming to get a relatively comprehensive sense of what is known about my topic and whether there is space for another study that is going to contribute meaningfully to the conversation. I am trying to figure out both who is in this conversation (what scholars specifically but also in what fields), what they are talking about, and what is known and not known according to these experts.
The goal here is to figure out whether my study will be new and relevant and whether there is a way to motivate it both empirically and theoretically for the audience I am thinking of. I need this answer to be yes in order to proceed with the process.
As I do this initial literature review I am also refining my research question, asking myself whether it makes sense, how it relates to the ways others have approached my topic, etc. Often questions are too big (they will require thousands of pages to answer) or too small (you don’t need an empirical study to answer them) so I am also trying to get my question to be the right size as I do this first review.
My search strategies are as follows
Google Scholar and Sociological Abstracts with key terms, and focus on books published by major presses and articles in well-known journals. When I get hits I sort them into groups based on what they are - materials by sociologists, by other academics, by journalists, etc. I only read things that are published (no conference papers!) and read books in the top academic presses first (Chicago, UC Berkeley, Princeton, Oxford, Cambridge) and things in well-known sociology journals. (See the box to the left for links to these journals.) Depending on the topic, I may read a lot written by non-sociologists to learn more. I read almost nothing in the popular media on the first go through.
I also don’t “read” everything - I skim books and read article abstracts to get an overview. The goal is to write 5-6 double spaced pages about what is known and what my study might add. I also want to have a set of more specific search terms and author names to search later. Typically I am mostly reviewing the sociology literature to think about how to fit this into a social science frame while also separating out “primary sources” to read later. These other sources about my topic include data (like government reports, statistical information etc.), which will be analyzed later rather than used for sociological framing.
Before I start collecting data I check with various colleagues to make sure my assessment of the literature and the place of my study in it (my 5-6 page document) makes sense and is convincing (i.e., I don’t want to waste my time gathering data to answer a question that people either don’t think is interesting, has already been answered in the literature, or isn’t going to add anything new and significant to the conversation. I don’t want to be the dud at the dinner party who is saying something people already know or doesn’t have anything to say.
Themes typically emerge in the process of analyzing the data that require me to revisit what I think I know about my topic and question from the literature. This is usually the place where I am trying to figure out what my empirical and theoretical arguments are. Often I have ideas about what my theoretical hooks or arguments might be but they come from other literatures, scholars or friends working in different parts of sociology, etc. This is often where I go back to the literature (via Annual Review articles and searches) to see how people have used certain concepts and to see if those concepts might help me articulate what I am finding. I also read the key empirical articles cited in the Annual Review articles to see how what I am finding is similar to and different from what others know and how I can relate to those studies with my data.
Google scholar and Sociological Abstracts, Annual review articles, asking people who know the discipline better than I do where to go to learn about concept x or y. At this point I’m looking for ideas as I read that will help me make and articulate whatever arguments might be supported by my data.
By the time I finish this step I have a good sense of what my findings and argument are and how they fit into the existing conversation / literature.
If I have done the above two steps well, I probably have an outline by now that lays out what I think my findings are and how I am going to situate them and motivate them in existing literatures. Before I start to write I read through my entire Endnote database and I put citations and notes in the outline that will help me make certain points. If I see holes or don’t feel like the outline is tight enough I do more lit review at this point to help me situate my question as tightly as possible in existing literature. While articles are written in a way that makes it look like you do the lit review, then the data collection and analysis, then articulate the findings, etc. this is actually iterative for me through the whole process.
For more information on EndNote and other citation management software like Zotero, see the Organizing section of this guide.
The same as what’s outlined above. Part of the trick here though is knowing when to stop searching and start writing! I try to start writing before I feel like I am finished reading because I will discover as I write what is missing and will go back and fill it in.
I have friends and colleagues read my paper and give me feedback back. If this is going to a journal I look at the editorial board and make sure I have engaged with the ideas of any scholars on the editorial board that are relevant as these people are likely to be reviewers. I also always fill in a lot of citations after the article is drafted so I can see it as a whole and see what is and is not needed to make the argument more compelling.
This is when I am looking up certain people usually on the web to see if I read relevant publications or am searching for a particular article. If I know I need some citations about a certain topic to support a point, this is also when I find them. This is usually the easiest part of the process.