The literature review


These materials are a combination of web-based support and paper materials managed through the Guided Independent Learning (GIL) support programme. You need to become a registered GIL student in order to use them properly. There are additional paper-based resources available through a GIL appointment.

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 literature 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) point to 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:
  1. 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.
  2. they try to be 'critical'.
  3. they are clear and the progression of ideas being pursued is rational and clearly thought through.
  4. they clearly show when previous ideas in the review are being referred to again.
  5. they 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: (chapter five, section 3, part 2 - part 2 has a further heading and then a third heading under that)
This is the contents page for one chapter of a recent Exeter dissertation
(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 final sentence.

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) (" 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 academic community.

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: [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