Literature Reviews for Public Affairs and Policy: What is a Literature Review?
What is a Literature Review?
A literary review is a concise yet thorough summary of previous academic work on your topic.
At the most basic level, it serves two core functions.
- First, it provides your reader with a summary of work in your field. By the end of this section, your reader should have a general understanding of the primary themes and trends relating to your topic. This is not a summary of the topic itself, but rather a summary of what previous scholars have argued regarding the topic.
- Second, the literature review explains your contribution to the field. In your discussion of the scholarly landscape, you will identify an area of research that requires further development. Your research, through the use of new data, methodology, or analysis will in some way build upon the existing literature by filling the scholarly gap you have identified.
It is wise to conduct a literature review after selecting a topic but before conducting research.
- As quick warning: there is always a temptation within literature reviews to arguing that a particular topic has "never" been studied, or has been studied poorly. Resist this urge, and be nuanced in your critique of the field. Even a modest contribution to the academic literature is an important and laudable achievement.
Academic articles, by design, direct you to related materials.
After finding one relevant, recent article, you are able to use its citations and references to find additional sources.
- Who does the article cite in the bibliography?
- Who does the arthur argue against in the literature review?
- Where did the article find its data/sources?
- Had the author(s) published similar works?
- If using a database, are there similar suggested works?
Filling gaps in the literature
After finding recent materials on your topic, consider:
- What are broad topics and trends?
- Are there a number of authors who repeatedly appear in the literature?
- What do articles/authors say about gaps in the literature?
In addition to identifying a gap, consider why it exists:
- Scholars are endlessly searching for new fields to pioneer, so why does this gap exist?
- Are there sufficient materials/sources/data to cover your topic/gap?
Assess and Summarize
All articles are argumentative, and each is designed to fill a hole in the literature.
Fortunately, articles include short literature reviews that explicitly state their intention.
Review articles are even more helpful, as they summarize the field for you.
When reading an article, consider:
- What is the author's argument?
- What gap are they trying to fill?
- HOW do they claim to fill this gap (via new methods? New data? New approach?)
Due to the volume of literature to cover, exercise professional skimming. Focus on:
- Figures and graphs.
Summarizing an article:
Be able to succinctly summarize an article into its component parts:
- what is the topic?
- what is the argument?
- what are the sources?
- how does it add to or challenge the literature?
You should be able to reduce an article to the sentence:
In [Title], [Author] studies [Topic], arguing [Thesis].
By examining [data/sources], the article contributes to the field by [gap the lit claims to fill].