As regular readers have likely noticed, blog posting has not returned to usual levels. This is mostly because I have an excess of commitments at the moment. Several of these are research-related – I am writing up my doctoral dissertation proposal and am also working as a research assistant – and so I’ve been thinking a lot about research techniques. Since I’ve already had to devote a fair bit of time to this, I figured it made sense to turn it into a blog post. So, for the few that are interested, here is my approach to literature reviews.
Before beginning, it’s important to know what you seek to gain from a literature review. Perhaps the most obvious answer is to familiarize yourself with the general ways of thinking about a topic, but I think this is too vague an objective. After all, a good literature review is not merely a summary of extant work but a purposeful and critical analysis of existing knowledge. What do we know? How do we know it? Do certain patterns exist, and how have they evolved over time? Are there gaps or contradictions? Are there questions that have not yet been asked? These are all questions that one should keep in mind while parsing the existing scholarship in a field. The reason is that a literature review is typically one of the better ways to find an opening and discover a niche that has relevance to the broader research agenda but has been underexplored. Instead of reading passively, stay engaged so that you can find new research questions, recognize important variables, and generate plausible theories.
With this in mind, how should you begin? I think it generally depends on your pre-existing knowledge level. If you know almost nothing about a topic, it is usually best to begin with secondary and tertiary sources that highlight the major debates and core authors. Another underappreciated strategy is to consult with research librarians who are subject matter specialists. In my experience, they are incredibly helpful in refining search terms and suggesting literature and data sources you likely would have otherwise overlooked. Once you have a basic grasp of the literature, you can start to input key terms into different databases and skim the major works on the topic. At this stage, it is important to read widely because you are still feeling your way around, and it is impossible to know exactly what you’ll find. Thus, it pays to prioritize thoroughness over efficiency. But you should also not feel compelled to read everything all the way through. Instead, prioritize the abstracts of articles, skim the introductory and concluding chapters of books, and peruse their methodology sections and literature reviews. The only things worth reading cover to cover are the absolute best sources in your pile.
It is also helpful to note recurring authors so that you can read their CVs and find all the relevant pieces they have published on your topic. You should also note their coauthors so that you can scour their CVs as well. It may even be worth reaching out to these authors. Most people love talking about their research, and they can suggest new questions, valuable databases, and other scholars interested in similar issues. Major scholars in the field are also helpful because they are frequently invited to publish in the Annual Review journals, which exclusively put out detailed literature reviews on a wide range of topics. Of course, you don’t really need to know the scholar to search the journal, but their name can serve as another useful search term.
Once you’ve found the major articles and authors, read their footnotes. This is an extremely effective way of finding articles you missed in the first round of research. It also helps you see the evolution of the field, as you progressively work your way back through the work of previous researchers. But you should also work your way forward. The way I generally do this is Google Scholar, which allows users to see which papers cite the book or article they’ve just read. By using this tool, you can see how other scholars interpreted, assessed, and built on the work. This can give you ideas, and it can also help you see how other scholars view the state of the field.
Finally, read widely and excessively, and strive to always record interesting points or ideas. You may never revisit the pieces you read, but maintaining a steady diet of books and articles ensures that you remain up to date on current trends and hot topics. Reading widely and purposefully also reduces the front-end work because it ensures you have at least an elementary grounding in the relevant literature, and this provides you with a valuable starting point. Finally, reading widely increases your ability to draw connections across fields and derive novel insights that will make your work more interesting and more useful.
I’m sure everyone approaches lit reviews a bit differently, but I suspect that the general approach is fairly similar across all individuals. Read widely and with a purpose, chase down every lead, and don’t be afraid to ask for help. If you can follow these basic rules, you’ll probably be fine.