Literature Reviews

A brief guide for various disciplines, including social work, other social sciences, human environmental sciences, and related disciplines

Director for Research & Instruction

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Ellen Urton
426 Mullins Library

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Use databases:

Use OneSearch and WorldCat to find books and databases to find dissertations and articles for the review.  Ask a librarian for help!

What is a literature review?

The purpose of a literature review is to help ground yourself in the discipline and help you (and your readers) understand your topic in the context of the field or discipline. Note: The expectations for a literature or 'lit' review can vary by discipline and within a discipline, by the type of literature review you choose to complete and the purpose of that review; IF in doubt, consult your advisor/professor.

There are some general rules:

  • Immerse yourself in the written discourse so that you can answer: who's said what? when? was it significant? who disagrees? why? what's next?
  • Cover the relevant, important literature in the field (or top x, if x= number of sources specified); you will need to be able to justify your choices. Deciding what's relevant is part of the task.
  • Define what has been done and what needs to be done in an area of research
  • Connect the works into a coherent overview
  • Synthesize what's out there, specifying how it relates to your topic.


In addition:

A literature review is also a way to inform your own writing. What is the scope of most articles in your discipline? Is the literature oriented toward empirical studies? (these can be either quantitative or qualitiative or mixed). What are the most common methods? what are the most interesting ones? (Rampel, 2010, among others).


Literature reviews can be a class assignment, an introduction to a paper or research project, a stand-alone article, or an introduction to a larger work, such as a thesis or dissertation. If in doubt, ask your professor or advisor.

Read the assignment or review your notes to see what is required. Sometimes a specific number of sources is requested.

When you are finished, you should be able to discuss the work of the most prominent authors in some detail, and give a cogent overview, and preferably, a synthesis of the literature that you have studied.

A literature review is about ideas, concepts, theories and hypotheses, results and projections. It is usually both a summary of what's known and an introduction to the research that you plan to do. It is not an explication of your own research, but you need to know what the evidence is, for and against your hypothesis or argument.

A lit review is not... but it should--

A literature review is not a bibliography, per se. It is not a research paper, although they often contain literature reviews. It does not usually discuss every possible work in the field-- but it should cover the relevant ones.

"The end?"

You are close to the end when you start running into the same authors, the names that your professors mention don't make you say "Who?" and you start to feel a sense of command or fluency in the topic. This takes time and effort.

Funny, but not so funny

Finding books on "how to"

If you do a subject search in the catalog with research methodology as a phrase you find a lot of titles that talk about this process.

A call number with a book means that it is on the shelves, unless it has "request via Illiad" as a location. If you click on the title, you'll see the record and be able to tell if the book is available, or whether to request that it be pulled for you from the Annex. Some books have both print and online copies. Some are only online.