A dissertation is a research essay; it seeks to respond to a doubt, a problem. In deciding your reading and research strategies you need to ask, where did the problem come from? What is already known about it? What other methods have been tried to solve it? The literature review seeks to indicate that you understand what, in discussion of these questions, has been published.
Literature means everything that has been written in the field of enquiry, the recognized or respected writing on a given subject. Academic reading is in some sense respectable, worthy reading for academic study, and is specialized and technical. The purpose of this reading is to become informed about theories, debates and perspectives in the field of enquiry. It has to precede your research because it assists in formulating ideas that will help you devise your methodology.
A Literature Review Must
- be related directly to the argument (known as the thesis) that you are proposing
- integrate reading into a summary of what is known and what gaps there may be
- identify issues and debates emerging from the literature
- formulate questions that necessitate more research
Expressing a theoretical framework often features as a function of writing up the literature review. In a theoretical framework you would include an outline of existing theories which are relevant to your research topic. You could also indicate research projects similar to yours that have been written up.
Beginning the Writing Process
The literature you access will include recently published books and journals accessible through university libraries and bookshops, and older material archived in university libraries and online. This reading is challenging and the task of interpreting it and writing out the sense you make of it can prove daunting. The pitfalls you can stumble into include
- Reading everything, rather than making critical judgements for selection
- Reading but not writing
- Not keeping full bibliographic records
It is helpful to compile a preliminary annotated bibliography summarising each book or journal article you read. Chapters in edited collections of essays may be treated individually – you do not have to discuss the entire book. Take copious notes, paraphrase the author’s argument, select passages to quote, and note the full reference for author, date, publisher and page number as you go.
- Summarise – what for your study are the most relevant points made
- Critique – evaluate, assess the strengths and weaknesses of content
- Interpret how it succeeds or fails to support your hypothesis
- Synthesise – reorganise the material and incorporate it into your argument
Organize the reading into sections that present themes or identify trends. Your writing should demonstrate that you are capable of thinking critically and conceptualising about issues raised by previous research. Grouping items into sections helps you indicate comparisons and relationships.
How Should This Material be Organised?
A Literature Review looks like an essay or a chapter in a book. It is a piece of prose offering logical discussion, not a list describing or summarizing one piece of literature after another, so avoid beginning every paragraph with the name of a researcher or title of a book. It must be defined by a guiding concept such as your dissertation research objective, the problem you are discussing, or your hypothesis. Your introductory paragraph should signal:
- what you are going to cover in the review
- the scope of your research
- how the review relates to your research project
Open the introduction with a strong positive statement about your topic. Suggest how many themes your literature report focuses on and name these themes. Follow the introduction with the main body of the essay, properly paragraphed. End with a concluding paragraph relating back to the introduction, and forward to the next chapter probably themethodology.
Reviewing the Final Structure
Your literature chapter presents your research topic as a narrative, so that your readers can understand exactly what the work entails, and it demonstrates to your tutor that you have read appropriately within your field. It tells the reader of your dissertation of the way in which your thoughts have developed and of the limits of your research, and provides them with the background information that they need in order to be able to understand what comes next.
Read more about Thesis writing