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Literature Review

Choose an organization

Once you have some articles that look good, read the abstracts to get an idea of what they say. You may want to skim over the best ones, especially if they have good literature reviews themselves. That will give you an idea how literature reviews are written on this topic!

Now, think about how the ideas in the articles you have might be organized. One of the purposes of the literature review is to provide an overview and synthesis of information; grouping similar articles gives you a framework for your overview.

It is usually wise to move from broad to narrow. Provide your reader with the most general information first, then building toward the specifics of your research concerns.

There are many different approaches to how to organize your literature review, depending on what the literature looks like. Think about what the articles you have are talking about. Do they group themselves naturally to you? Some examples of ways to organize a literature review include:

CHRONOLOGICAL: This is a common approach, especially for topics that have been talked about for a long time and have changed over their history. Organize it in stages of how the topic has changed: the first definitions of it, then major time periods of change as researchers talked about it, then how it is thought about today.

COMPARISON TO PRESENT HYPOTHESIS: If your literature review is part of an empirical article or meta-analysis, where you intend to present a hypothesis and come to a conclusion, you can organize the literature review to show the articles that share or support your hypothesis, and those that disagree with it. This gives a chance to show the strengths of the supporting research, discuss any validity/methodology issues with past research that disagrees with your findings, and explain how the past research leads up to and supports yours.

BROAD-TO-SPECIFIC: Another approach is to start with a section on the general type of issue you're reviewing, then narrow down to increasingly specific issues in the literature until you reach the articles that are most specifically similar to your research question, thesis statement, hypothesis, or proposal. This can be a good way to introduce a lot of background and related facets of your topic when there is not much directly on your topic but you are tying together many related, broader articles.

MAJOR MODELS or MAJOR THEORIES: When there are multiple models or prominent theories, it is a good idea to outline the theories or models that are applied the most in your articles. That way you can group the articles you read by the theoretical framework that each prefers, to get a good overview of the prominent approaches to your concept.

PROMINENT AUTHORS: If a certain researcher started a field, and there are several famous people who developed it more, a good approach can be grouping the famous author/researchers and what each is known to have said about the topic. You can then organize other authors into groups by which famous authors' ideas they are following. With this organization it can help to look at the citations your articles list in them, to see if there is one author that appears over and over.

CONTRASTING SCHOOLS OF THOUGHT: If you find a dominant argument comes up in your research, with researchers taking two sides and talking about how the other is wrong, you may want to group your literature review by those schools of thought and contrast the differences in their approaches and ideas.

PROBLEM->SOLUTION:This approach groups quotations from articles first that introduce and describe the problem or problems being addressed in your research. Then group articles by types of solutions that are proposed in the articles.

PROCESS FLOW:If your literature review centers around part of a process, you may want to describe the stages in that process and group your citations by different stages or steps in that process. Remember, a single article may have several quotes from different sections, each going with a different part of the process! That way you can use many articles' descriptions of your process, or compare and contrast different approaches to it.

There are many other ways to organize a literature review, and you can also combine organization methods. In a doctoral dissertation your literature review may have multiple subsections to discuss several of the points listed above. Feel free to organize it in any way that seems logical to you! If it works for the literature - and your writing style - then go ahead and use it.

Make an Outline

Once you choose an organization (or organizations) make an outline. You don't have to be controlled by your outline but it can be a good way to organize your ideas, articles, quotations, and references.

Pick the major sub-parts of your outline, based on your organization. For example, if you're organizing chronologically, label the major time periods that mark changes in the history of your topic. Make notes from what you saw in the abstracts about which articles might go into which parts of your outline.

Now, as you start reading your articles, whenever you come across a really good quote you can mark it with which part of the outline it goes in. Make a note of the author, year, and page number whenever you run across something in your reading that explains, supports, or falls logically into a subsection in your review outline! It can be a simple chart, such as:

1960s - Origins

textbook chapter 2

Smith, 1962, p 36, 40-42, 47

Brown, 1963, p 132

Smith, 1964, p. 1-10

Jones, 2001, p 216


textbook chapter 4

Doe & Grey, 1982, p 100-115

90s-early 00s

textbook chapters 5&6

Jones, 2001, p 310-330

Grey, 1999, p28


textbook chapters 8-11

Smith, 2003, p80-82

Jones, 2008, p1

Scott, 2010, p99

Williamson, 2010, p36-37

It doesn't have to be a table; organize it however you want. Just label your sections and start taking notes of good quotes and/or relevant page numbers, as you read.