Chapter 9 Reviewing the Literature

The greatest gift you can give yourself as a researcher is to read and analyze the literature surrounding your study as early as possible. Too often, students see the literature review as something to do while waiting for their data to be collected. This may be because they don’t fully understand the importance and purpose of the review. It may also be because they are uncertain of the exact procedures to follow for conducting a literature search. The importance of a literature search is stated by Hart (2009) in his book, Doing a Literature Review:

A review of the literature is important because without it you will not acquire an understanding of your topic, of what has already been done on it, how it has been researched, and what the key issues are. In your written project you will be expected to show that you understand previous research on your topic. This amounts to showing that you have understood the main theories in the subject area and how they have been applied and developed, as well as the main criticisms that have been made of work on the topic. (p. 1)

A similar notion was advanced by Boote and Beile (2005); they made the following points:

A substantive, thorough, sophisticated literature review is a precondition for doing substantive, thorough, sophisticated research. . . . A researcher cannot perform significant research without first understanding the literature in the field. Not understanding the prior research clearly puts a researcher at a disadvantage. (p. 3)

A comprehensive, up-to-date literature review allows you to get to the frontier in your area of research and, at the same time, become an expert in your field. In addition, the insights and knowledge you gain provide the basis for a better-designed study and enhance the possibility of obtaining significant results. A review of the literature is a vital part of the research process.

A literature review is a two-phase activity. In the first phase, you conduct the review by identifying appropriate resources, searching for relevant materials, and analyzing, synthesizing, and organizing the results; the second phase is the actual writing of the review, which culminates in the completed product. The literature review section of a study is found where reference is made to the related research and theory around your topic. The location may vary, depending on your selected methodology. For example, in some qualitative studies, authors might choose to locate the literature section toward the end of the dissertation, following discussion of the emerging theory, which, according to Creswell (2004), “allows the views of the participants to emerge without being constrained by the views of others from the literature” (p. 90). Researchers in quantitative studies typically place their discussion of the literature at the beginning of a study, usually in a separate chapter titled “Review of the Literature.” Frequently, the literature is referred to again at the end of the study when comparing the study’s findings to the literature.

This chapter helps you acquire the skills to conduct and write a thorough and systematic review of the literature in your field of interest. The chapter includes the purpose and scope of the literature review, notes on its preparation, specific steps in conducting a literature review, and strategies and techniques for writing the literature review.

Purpose and Scope

What is a literature review? According to Creswell (2004), “A literature review is a written summary of journal articles, books, and other documents that describe the past and current state of information; organizes the literature into topics; and documents a need for a proposed study” (p. 89). Reviewing the literature involves locating, analyzing, synthesizing, and organizing previous research and documents (periodicals, books, abstracts, etc.) related to your study area. The goal is to obtain a detailed, cutting-edge knowledge of your particular topic. To do this, you must immerse yourself in your subject by reading extensively and voraciously. A solid and comprehensive review of the literature accomplishes several important purposes. It helps you to do the following:

1. Focus the purpose of your study more precisely.

2. Develop a conceptual or theoretical framework that might be used to guide your research.

3. Identify key variables for study and suggest relationships among them if you are completing a quantitative study; if you are conducting a qualitative study, identify the concepts or topics you plan to study.

1. Provide a historical background for your study.

2. Uncover previous research similar to your own that can be meaningfully extended.

3. Determine the relationship of your topic relative to current and past studies.

4. Identify scholars and theorists in your area of study.

5. Form a basis for determining the significance of your study.

6. Uncover questionnaires or tests previously validated.

7. Link your findings to previous studies. (Do your findings support or contradict them?)

We hope we convinced you of the importance of doing an early and comprehensive review of the literature. The benefits are numerous, especially in the initial stages of designing a dissertation study.

One of the biggest frustrations students encounter is determining how long and how comprehensive the review should be. Even though you must read broadly to develop perspective about your topic, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you must include in the bibliography every book, article, or study read. The literature review is not an aggregation of every book and article related to your topic; it is always selective. Therefore, you must be discriminating and include only the most relevant information. Remember that bigger is not better! The shotgun approach indicates a lack of knowledge about what is relevant information. Unfortunately, no magic formula exists to guide your selection; it is a judgment call on your part. You know it is time to quit when you keep encountering the same references and can’t find important new resources.

Generally speaking, most advisors prefer the literature review chapter to be around 20 to 40 pages. However, keep in mind that this can vary, depending on the breadth and complexity of your study and the preferences of your advisor. Take time to clarify with your advisor’s preferences prior to writing the review.


Step 1 in writing your literature review requires that you become knowledgeable about what references are available and where to find them, what services your library provides, and the regulations and procedures regarding the use of library materials.

It is also wise to cultivate a friendship with a librarian or two. Their knowledge and expertise can save you considerable time searching for information. Most librarians are willing to make appointments to help you create a search strategy, determine appropriate print and electronic databases for your research needs, and explain the interlibrary loan services available to you. It is also a good idea to consult librarians about nontraditional sources on your topic, such as think tanks, professional associations, government documents, and publications from nonprofit organizations.

Because the majority of academic literature is now available online, you needn’t spend hours using call numbers to browse the stacks of your library. Most of your research will be conducted online using your own computer from home or the office. This means that you must become computer literate and Internet savvy to make your dissertation research easier. Becoming familiar with search engines and how they work (using keywords, Boolean operators, truncation, and online help) is essential. There certainly are downsides to

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