The Literature Review - Purpose

Though disciplines may differ in their approach to literature reviews, across the board, a good literature review will help you justify your research and develop your thesis position.

Be aware that a literature review differs from an annotated bibliography; find out the differences at literature review vs. annotated bibliography.

Justify Your Research

  • Place your portion of the discussion in the academic context by showing that there are gaps in knowledge in your field that merit a closer investigation.  Demonstrate that your work will fill this gap by adding knowledge in and understanding of your field.
  • Demonstrate your work hasn't been previously done, ensuring your intellectual contribution is indeed original.
  • Demonstrate a critical approach to scholarship. Show you have analyzed and critiqued the theories or methodologies in the field and that you know the main arguments related to your topic.
  • Consider how the available research and existing scholarship support your research. How does it contradict your research? How will your research resolve the difference?

Develop Your Thesis Position

  • Educate yourself on the primary theoretical and methodological approaches to your discipline, as well as the primary actors.  Ask yourself the following questions:
    • Who are the most important scholars in your discipline?
    • What questions have they asked and answered?
    • What controversies remain within the discipline?
  • Identify controversies and differences of opinion among scholars in your field, and makes a case for your research as a valid, important response and possible resolution of those controversies.  Consider the points on which scholars differ - either differing theoretical approaches to the question or differing conclusions drawn by scholars. What part will your work play in the resolution of said controversies?
  • Synthesize the results of your research into a concise, coherent account of what is known in your field of inquiry and what remains to be learned, such that it addresses the specific thesis, problem, or research question.

Literature Review vs. Annotated Bibliography

Differences in Purpose
  • A literature review makes a case for further investigation and research, highlighting gaps in knowledge and asking questions that need to be answered for the betterment of the discipline; as such, its contents are selected to make the case.
  • An annotated bibliography is a list of what's available in a given field, accompanied by a short description. While it may feature a critical component, the criticism is generally directed at the quality of the work, rather than at its value in answering a particular question or buttressing an argument In short, a literature review usually has a thesis or statement of purpose, stated or implied, at its core.
Differences in Format
  • A literature review is a prose document similar to a journal article or essay, not a list of citations and descriptions. Here at the University of Arizona, the literature review is generally presented to one's dissertation advisor/sponsor, and occasionally to the dissertation committee, as a precondition to departmental approval of one's research. Your advisor does not want to read a long list of book and article titles, and neither does the department committee.

It may help you and your advisor if you organize your writing into sections, each with a theme. For example, your literature review might include a section on resources that support your hypothesis, another section on resources that disprove or contradict your thesis, a section on resources that neither support nor disprove your thesis but raise additional questions, etc. See the section of this guide on steps of the literature review for more guidance, and remember to speak with your dissertation/thesis advisor about the best possible formats for your literature review.

  • An annotated bibliography is simply that: a bibliography (a list of works or resources), accompanied by annotations. The annotations are usually short descriptions and a brief critical assessment of each work. While annotated bibliographies are generally not acceptable as literature reviews written for departmental review and approval, they are valuable adjuncts to literature reviews. Indeed, the best literature reviews will be based on good, comprehensive annotated bibliographies; and many UA departments require that literature reviews written for departmental approval of research be accompanied by an annotated bibliography.

Last modified: December 7, 2011