Writing a literature review demonstrates that you are familiar with previous research and theoretical concepts related to your research topic. The “literature” includes scholarly publications written by primarily by researchers in your discipline. Reports of research and theoretical discussions are mostly found in peer-reviewed journals and books, which you should read before designing your own study.
A literature review is more than a list of previous research, and it’s more than a description of studies. It is a detailed case that we make to justify how and why our study will contribute to the existing scholarly knowledge on our topic. When writing a literature review, we need to explain why this is important based on the scholarly discussion on our topic, not just why it is important to society in general.
How do you get started?
The first step is to find related studies in the sociological literature, read them, and organize the findings thematically. I discuss exactly how to do this in a previous post.
Here are some important questions to ask as you read other studies before starting one of your own. Your literature review should provide answers to these questions (although we generally do not explicitly include these questions in a literature review):
- How do scholars in this discipline think about my topic? In other words, what questions have they asked? What specific theoretical discussions have influenced previous research? How have these conversations been enhanced by research results?
To answer these questions in your literature review, you might discuss specific ways that previous studies have conceptualized the issue you are studying. Let’s say you are interested in doing research on constructions of masculinity within sports teams. How have previous studies conceptualized the meaning-making process of masculinity? You might find that there are two or three different ways that these previous discussions can be grouped. Discuss the specific studies that emerged from each way of conceptualizing this meaning-making process.
You might notice at the end of a journal article or a book, scholars often discuss their findings and how they encourage us to think about related concepts differently. For instance, maybe their research encourages us to see the creation of masculinity within sports teams as tied to constructions of the body or the experience of competition. This is a hypothetical example of how a scholarly conversation can be enhanced by the results of research.
Sometimes these discussions are a bit different from the way in which you have been thinking about this topic. For instance, many students new to sociology tend to think about masculinity as fixed or simply binary (the “opposite” of femininity). Note how scholars in this field discuss this concept.
- Is my research question part of this larger scholarly conversation? If not, is my research question really a sociological question? How can I make it more sociological? Is there a clear gap in the literature that my research might fill?
In addition to discussion what the scholarly conversation has looked like, you also need to explain specifically how your research will fit into this conversation. Is there one particular way of thinking about the issue that you found in the literature that has especially shaped your thinking? Using the example above, maybe you have been particularly influenced by Connell’s notion of hegemonic masculinity, and your study will add to this conversation.
If you are having trouble connecting your study to existing discussions in sociology, this should be a warning sign that your research question might not be a sociological one, so you might need to tweak it a bit. Even if you are planning to study something very new that isn’t in the literature—say constructions of masculinity via Tik Tok videos—you should be able to connect your ideas to a larger scholarly conversation. If not, seek assistance from your instructor and keep reading the literature on masculinity to better understand the discipline’s conversation.
It might be the case that your study would fit better in another discipline, such as psychology or evolutionary biology. If so, you’ll need to either alter your question or your field of study.
- How will my study further the discipline’s body of knowledge on this issue?
After you have read, analyzed, and categorized previous studies, you need to explain to readers how these previous studies will inform how you will conceptualize your topic and conduct your research. What will your study add to the conversation?
This doesn’t mean your study has to be completely new or novel to add to the scholarly conversation. It might be a study similar to others already done, but with a different population (maybe a younger or older sports team, for instance). Perhaps you are wondering if the findings of one study are still relevant many years later, or if something has changed over time, or maybe in a different location.
A literature review isn’t really just a review—it is basically a way for a researcher to make the case that their work is part of an existing scholarly conversation, and that it will add to the conversation in some small (or not so small) way.