10 tips on writing a dissertation literature review
(Last updated: 3 March 2020)
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Many students writing their undergraduate or Masters dissertation struggle with the concept of the literature review. What is it? How long should a literature review be? How should it be structured? If you're a new student or writing essays at a lower level where a literature review isn't a usual requirement, the concept of compiling one for a dissertation can be even more daunting.
Here, we break down the dissertation literature review and give you some top tips on how to get it right.
What is a literature review?
The literature review often appears near the start of your dissertation, and is a key part of your overall dissertation structure. It is a summary of the current writings in the field you are researching and into which your dissertation will eventually fit. It's unlikely you will have the time to read every word available on your topic, however in the literature review you should aim to demonstrate wide reading.
Rather than simply a list of different writers in the field and their opinions, your literature review should give a clear idea of the whole field as it currently stands, describing different bodies of literature, providing varying standpoints on the important issues, and indicating where general opinions have recently changed or are currently being challenged. It must provide a critique of each work, not simply a summary of the books and articles to which you refer. Furthermore, this should be done using authoritative works written by experts – you'll need to evaluate each relevant book or article you discover to ensure it has been written by an academic.
Remember – a good literature review not only provides important background to your own dissertation writing, but also helps to show where your dissertation will fit into the field.
What should a dissertation literature review include?
Paragraphs giving the title of each book and then summarising their contents do not constitute a literature review. You need to look for themes that several authors mention and discuss the ways the different authorities have tackled them. Your literature review should be as comprehensive as possible, mentioning all the major theorists or writers in the field of your dissertation subject.
You need to give a strong idea of how the field lies, so don’t just mention each writer individually, but try to relate them to one another and compare their views to give an overview of the current arguments and which bodies of literature belong together.
It might be helpful to use subheadings or bullet points in your dissertation writing to clarify the different areas of theory and the positions of each writer. These subsections might echo areas of the subject you will later visit in your dissertation itself.
How long should a literature review be?
As a general guide, the dissertation literature review should be around 25% of the complete dissertation, although this will also depend on the wider structure of your dissertation and the scope of literature available to you. In any case, when considering your inclusion and exclusion criteria, it is important to ask the following of each article: is this relevant, suitable, and useful?
In practice, this process will ensure that the review remains concisely tailored to the topic discussed. Moreover, if you find that the literature available is too sparse, or conversely, insurmountable; it is worth reconsidering your research questions to develop a more constrained focus on the topic at hand.
The next section of this blog offers 10 top tips on how to ensure you write a great dissertation literature review.
Do not begin analysing the literature before clarifying in your own mind the research questions that will guide your dissertation. By formulating problems beforehand, you will avoid wasting hours in aimless reading. Know the issues of concern to you and consider the material through this lens alone.
2. Wide search
In order to write a satisfactory literature review you must demonstrate your ability to search out relevant material from a wide variety of sources. Trawl online databases for useful dissertations and articles by using their abstracts to consider relevance, use all available university, college and departmental libraries, consult the web for extra resources, and follow footnotes. Don't forget also, about the dissertation writing service from Oxbridge Essays, which offers a completely customised sample dissertation from which to model your own work.
3. Significance over content
A common mistake in writing a literature review is to get bogged down in flat descriptions of the content of the many books, journals articles and reports that you have been reading. Relate only the directly relevant content, and spend as much time analysing the comparative significance of various sources for your own purposes.
4. Key themes
It will be necessary to identify, draw out, explain, interpret and evaluate key themes that emerge from the literature you have been studying. Thematic analysis will not only demonstrate a genuine engagement with the literature, but provide you with a scaffold on which to build the body of your text.
5. Critical attitude
Nothing must make it into your literature review which has not been scrutinised, questioned and dissected. A critical approach to all reviewed material is the means to ensuring the elimination of mere description and the proper emphasis on original analysis. Challenge assumptions, generate arguments and give reasons for your reactions.
Beyond the identification of key themes and issues, it will be necessary to reach certain findings in light of your analysis of the relevant literature. Try to draw working conclusions about the current balance of opinion concerning certain controversies, suggest what you believe to be the emergent or future trends in the field, identify deficiencies in current knowledge and relate your own position to that of others.
7. Valid sources
The need to consult a broad range of material has already been stated, but consider also the validity of the sources you review. In some subject areas classic texts retain their authority for literally thousands of years; cutting edge scientific research will need to be more mindful of the dangers of consulting obsolete data.
Key themes provide a natural structuring principle in a literature review, as do categories based on relevance to research questions, academic position, theoretical paradigm, chronology, and so on. Categorising reviewed material into ‘for’ and ‘against’ classes for certain controversies is one useful way to present findings.
Part of your analysis of reviewed material will almost certainly involve a consideration of the theoretical underpinning of each source, inherent working assumptions, paradigmatic aims, and so on. Explicitly articulate the rationale behind the theoretical aspect to your own findings and the position you have reached by the end of the literature review.
10. Source provenance
A standard consideration in any review, but one worth being reminded of nonetheless. How authoritative is the writer? Is the author widely cited? Has later response in the literature provided damning critique of the work in question, or considerable support?