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Doing a Literature Review in Sociology

Advice from a sociologist and a librarian about how to do a literature review.

Find Sociology Articles in Library Databases

Find more on our Databases A-Z: Sociology page.

Using the Library at This Stage

Suggestions from a Librarian
t this early stage, students are usually in one of two places:

  1. They have a broad sense of a topic but no research question yet
  2. They have a very specific and narrow research question and have already thought through much of their study but haven’t started their literature search.

In an ideal world, you plan your study after you’ve done an initial search of the literature. Your literature search then informs the development of your research question. I have found it’s better to be at place #1 than #2, but the search strategies below should help in either case.


If you’re at place #2 and you’re not finding enough sources, consider stepping back from your topic. Take a look at Steps 1 and 2 – brainstorming and creating search terms – in the outline below. You probably need to think more broadly about your topic. This doesn’t mean you have to scratch your narrow research question. It just means you’ll approach the databases and scholarly literature with broader concepts.


Many times, it comes down to search terms. A rookie mistake is to assume there’s nothing on your topic because you didn’t find any relevant articles after one or two searches. If this happens, go back to your search terms. Can you think of synonyms? Have you tried different combinations of those synonyms? Did you try your search in a variety of databases and search engines? If you’re still stuck, I can help you brainstorm a list of search terms that will work well in the library databases.

Search Strategies 1-3

1. Brainstorming: You want to get a bird’s eye view of your topic, so you have to parse out all the different ways your topic can be explored. Make a list of all the ways you can approach your topic. Think of other disciplines that might cover it.

2. Create search terms: Good search terms are concrete, specific, and often nouns. Avoid phrases. Think of synonyms, especially as you venture outside of the sociology journals. Different disciplines use different terminology, and at this stage, you want to be as broad as possible.

3. Decide where to search: At this stage, try a mix of databases and search engines. Start with a broad, general database, like Google Scholar* or Academic Search Premier. Then move into the sociology databases. I recommend Sociological Abstracts and SocINDEX. Also try databases in other disciplines. If you’re not sure where to look, ask me!


*This link to Google Scholar will connect with the Brandeis databases so you can easily access the full text PDFs. 


A Note on JSTOR: I love JSTOR, and it’s really easy to use. However, our collection of social science journals in JSTOR skews older (pre-2009). Most of our current holdings (2009-present) are in other databases–mostly SocIndex (EBSCO) and Sociological Abstracts (ProQuest).

Search Strategies 4-6

4. Choosing the best hits: Often searching the scholarly literature doesn’t give you exactly what you want right away. It’s a little more complex than searching Google for a good coffee shop. You may find your search gives too few relevant articles, or you get so many that you’ll never have time to go through them all.

If you aren't getting enough relevant hits... 

  • Go back to your master list of search terms from Steps 1 & 2, and brainstorm some synonyms. Try them in different combinations. Also, consider trying other databases, including those focusing on other disciplines.
  • Say you get too few results, but you find one or two relevant articles. Look at the information describing these articles – the journal title, the abstract, the subject tags. Did you find any terms that you didn’t think of? Did the author describe the topic a little differently? Use these new terms as keywords for your next search.
  • Also, in many of the databases, the journal title, the author’s name, and the subject tags will be links. Clicking on them will generate a new search that pulls up other articles published in that journal, written by that author, or tagged with that subject.

    NOTE: One of the downsides to Google Scholar is that it doesn’t provide the rich, descriptive information about the articles that you find in scholarly databases. This information is often linked in the scholarly databases and helps you to identify other similar articles.

If you're getting too many hits and feeling overwhelmed...

  • If you’re getting too many hits, go back to your original search terms. Perhaps they’re too broad, and you need to add  a keyword or two to make your search narrower.
  • Many databases also include facets in the left or right margin that allow you to change the parameters of your search. For example, you can narrow down to just articles published in the last five years.

Still need some help with evaluating your sources? Check out these inforgraphics:

5. Reading: You’re at the overview stage, so it doesn’t make sense to read everything. Skimming is just fine. Usually, you can get by with just reading the abstracts and conclusions of scholarly articles. You’ll want to save those articles for later though, so that leads right into #6… saving and organizing

6. Get organized! If you have a preferred citation management tool (EndNote, Zotero, Mendeley, etc.) start using it, even this early. If you don’t have one, this is the best time to find what works for you. You may not have time later on to learn additional software.

Find Literature Reviews

Literature reviews can be a valuable road map to sources on your topic. You can often find extensive literature reviews in dissertations and theses, and in Annual Reviews. Annotated bibliographies, such as those found in Oxford Bibliographies, can also be useful guides to the literature.