Social Research Methods

What is a Literature Review?

Literature reviews in the social sciences take a slightly different approach than in the humanities (literature, philosophy, history, etc.) or the sciences (biology, physics, etc.).  This guide focuses ONLY on the social sciences (anthropology, criminology, political science, sociology, etc.).

'literature' - commonly people use this word for creative written works like novels; but in academics the word 'literature' is also used to mean any collection or body of written work, including research articles and books.

'review' - commonly people use the word review for evaluations, like a movie review; but in academics the word is used broadly to mean a paper or section of a paper that summarizes and synthesizes literature to give an overview of theory and research on a topic.

Putting it together:

In the social sciences, a literature review is a paper or section of a paper that summarizes and synthesizes. To summarize is to describe the main arguments and conclusions. To synthesize is to compare, contrast, highlight relevant points, relate to ongoing trends or problems, and generally to draw out an argument or position based on the literature being reviewed.

A literature review is not a book review! Book reviews are articles that review a single book title. A literature sums up and analyzes a set of books or articles on a theme.

Literature reviews can be a section of a longer paper or book, or they can stand alone. Social scientists generally include a short review of relevant literature in their research papers to demonstrate how their own research fits into ongoing debates. Longer stand-alone review papers are published to give a picture of the current state of research.  The Annual Reviews publication series are classic examples of stand-alone reviews.

Guides on writing literature reviews:

More kinds of review articles

Review articles are generally a kind of secondary source.  That is, they are not presenting empirical findings from a single research project.  They are, however, original, in the sense that the author is using skill, knowledge and creativity to compile and write something new about the material (books, articles) under review.

There are several kinds of review articles.  Book Reviews are a special case, because sometimes they are written by experts but sometimes they are written by journalists or just fans of the book. Typically, a book review describes the main contents of the book, how it relates to existing ideas or works, and gives a judgment as to its value to various readers.  Some book reviews are just a paragraph, but the reviews in scholarly journals can be several pages.  In Esearch, you can limit search results to book reviews only, or screen book reviews out of the results, by clicking into the left-hand column under Content Type

Stand-alone Review Articles or Literature Reviews are common in the social sciences. The authors of these articles are experts, usually scholars. The review articles will address a current topic, lay out the main theories or ideas, recent developments in research, and suggest where further research is needed. Typical review articles are published in series such as:

In the health fields, Systematic Reviews and Meta-analyses are articles that go a step further. Not only do they summarize and research on a topic, but they carefully analyze the research and may attempt to draw conclusions based on the compiled studies.  For more on these kinds of reviews, see:

Finding related articles

Whether for a literature review or a research paper, the analysis is much easier if it is based on a cluster of related articles and not a random assortment.  Finding articles that are related rarely happens just by doing a single search, but it is not hard. Here are some approaches:

  1. Start with a textbook, reference book, dissertation or review article and collect the citations of the authors who are mentioned or cited as part of the debate.  Make sure to collect works from all points of view.
  2. Use citation tracking to see how scholars mention each others' work, whether as examples, evidence or in order to debate.  See below for more on citation tracking.