The literature review
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You need to become a registered GIL student in order to use them
properly. There are additional paper-based resources available through a
In a thesis or dissertation the
Literature review is perhaps one of the hardest things to write. It is
here that you show you fully understand how others think about your
topic and that you are able to critically examine what has been
written. They are often a wide-ranging review of the available
and the purpose is for you to position your own approach, research
within the literature as a whole. For a thesis in particular they help
to show how
your thinking contributes to world knowledge. Feak and Swales (2009)
a third reason in that a well-written literature review shows you are a
credible member of your particular academic community (the academy).
In active research (research which
measures the response of others -either qualitatively or
quantitatively), there are two general ways to approach the literature
review. In qualitative research the review might be threaded throughout
the thesis. Thus you might find reviews of relevant literature at any
point as new ideas are revealed by the data. A second approach dedicates particular chapters to the
literature review. Typically chapters two (background) and three (theoretical
concepts) and sometimes four (design of study). However, even using
this approach, literature may well be reviewed at other points as well
(particularly chapter seven - discussion and implications).
In review research it must be pointed
out that different genre (academic communities) have different ways of approaching the review.
Some genre - notably History - do not do active research (i.e research
involving living participants) when working with the distant past. This research tends to be entirely
dependent on a critical analysis of primary and secondary source
documentation. Thus, in one sense, the entire thesis can be a literature review.
Because of these variations in
approach to writing theses and dissertations it is almost impossible the
generalise either about thesis/dissertation structure or content.
However, there are a number of things which all literature reviews hold in common:
This is the contents page for one chapter of a recent Exeter dissertation
- they contain a great many references to to the writings of
others, and thus, must have a diligent and consistent referencing
system in which all references to the work of others is clearly denoted.
- they try to be 'critical'.
- they are clear and the progression of ideas being pursued is rational and clearly thought through.
- they clearly show when previous ideas in the review are being referred to again.
frequently, if not always, have staged heading and sub-headings
which can be referred to elsewhere in the thesis/dissertation.
Some of these can be quite long. I have seen one: 126.96.36.199.3 (chapter
five, section 3, part 2 - part 2 has a further heading and then a third
heading under that)
(note how the contents page uses headings and sub headings to manage the development of ideas)
this is part of that chapter
(note how many references are made in the chapter and how it refers to previous sections of the literature review "...alluded to in section 3.2 above.")
If we look again at this paragraph we
can see how the author (Rich, 2011) has mixed her own views with those
of others (Dewey and Sfard) to create a critical understanding in the
If we now go on to look at the next paragraph
we can see how the same author links the ideas of one thinker (Dewey)
to the ideas of another (Bakhtin) (".....as I will explain.), thus developing her critical stance
on the main topic of her chapter three and introducing the next section
of her literature review.
Phase one - looking at literature reviews written by others
Looking at models of good literature
reviews is very revealing. They provide a bedrock on which you can
model and build your own review. They also give you the experience of
reading in your genre that you need to become a member of that
Places to look
Perhaps the best place to look is the university's own collection of books, papers and theses. This is called Open Research Exeter (ORE)
Using ORE you can download
.pdf copies of theses and other documents according to the academic
community you are part of.
It is worth searching the archive by 'type'.
This will give you quick access to a
great many of the most recent theses and dissertations written in
Exeter university in all the different schools and colleges.
Another place to look is the university's electronic library. There are many databases where you can find full copies of Journal articles and theses with examples of literature reviews.
Rich, S. (2011) Learning
to Live interculturally: an exploration of experience and learning
among a group of international students at a university in the UK. Ph.D Thesis Exeter University. Available at: https://eric.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10036/3351. [Accessed 29/01/12]
Feak, C & Swales, J, (2009) Telling a Research Story. University of Michigan Press
next page - Types and Characteristics of the Literature Review