How do I write a literature review?

As part of a thesis, the literature review enables you to demonstrate your knowledge of previous work in your field and to situate your own research in the context of this work.

The literature review may form one or more distinct chapters of the thesis it may also be part of the introductory chapter or be incorporated as background for a number of chapters. How the review is incorporated generally depends on the field of study
A literature review can have a number of purposes within a thesis.

These include:

  • to show gaps in the research
  • to justify your own research
  • to demonstrate your understanding of your field
  • to generate new research hypotheses
  • to place your own research in its context
  • to summarise and evaluate past research
  • to show similarities and differences (or consistencies and inconsistencies) in previous research
  • to give an overview of controversies in past research

You will need to identify, analyse and interpret key themes in relevant previous studies and relate them to your own research focus. You should not just describe the contribution of each study in a list-like chronological sequence but, instead, make connections between the studies and integrate them. In order to justify your own research, you need to show limitations or gaps in existing research. In other words, you are evaluating the literature and thereby ‘making space’ for your own research. In some disciplines, this purpose determines the organisation of the entire literature review, while in others it occurs within particular sections.

Your review should be focussed and up to date; it should be concise, yet comprehensive; and your approach should be critical and original. You can use the Critical Thinking summary sheet (see link at right) to help you critique the literature you are reviewing.

For more help on this topic, see the links on the right...