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:
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:
Citation tracking is an excellent technique for discovering how scholars converse and debate issues in their publications. Scholars cite each others' work each time they build on existing research, compare, contrast, evaluate or otherwise relate to the ongoing academic conversation.
To track back in time, choose a book or article that seems important, and start looking up the listed references. Identify a reference that seems central or significant, look it up, then work back to the resources listed in its reference list or footnotes, and so on.
We can get help in this technique from many databases. For example, in Esearch, look for a link to "references" in the record of some articles. In ProQuest databases, look for the "references cited" or "related articles" links on the right column.
To track forward in time, we need tools that will show us what articles have cited the work we have in hand. Quite a few databases, as well as Esearch, provide such tools, including Web of Science, Google Scholar, and Proquest. Keep your eye out for the tell-tale "cited by" link.
EMU short video tutorial: Finding Articles by Tracking Citations
RECOMMENDATION for papers with more than five sources: keep track of the references you gather using a bibliographic tool such as EndNote or Zotero.