Ivory Tower Writing #6: Writing a literature review

This post introduces the art of writing a literature review.

Ah, the literature review. The two words that will surely break the spirit of grad students or anyone assembling a book-length argument of why we should use concordance theory as a new paradigm for civil-military relations. It is that section that you will always be revisiting and revising so it remains coherent and up-to-date.

In this post, I’ll walk you through the basics of a literature review, starting with whether you really need one, what it is, and how to write it.

Do I need a literature review?

The answer to this question highly depends on what you are writing in the first place. If you’re writing a PhD dissertation or a final thesis, you absolutely need one. If you’re writing a 3,000-word term paper, maybe you need one, albeit shorter than it would be in a final thesis/dissertation. If you’re writing anything less than 2,000 words, you probably don’t need one. It’ll leave you with less room to deliver your main arguments and to show original thinking.

If you’re writing a term paper (less than 5,000 words), you probably won’t need a literature review. Instead, your literature review will be incorporated into the text as you address previous research and advance your own argument. One example that I can offer is my short article (around 1,800 words), where I address the challenges of counterterrorism in Indonesia. In the article, I don’t have a literature review (it’s a commentary, not an academic article); instead, I simply integrate previous research into my arguments.

Papers that are around 5,000-10,000 words in length tend to require literature reviews which are usually a third of the total length of the paper (not a golden rule, by the way). But usually it isn’t called a “literature review”; instead, it’s likely to be phrased under a catchy subheading. However, the function is the same: to highlight the shortcomings of previous research and “position” your article within the ongoing debate.

For longer works (over 10,000 words), the literature review just keeps getting longer and longer, but it essentially serves the same purpose.

What is a literature review?

Regardless of whether or not you need to write a literature review, you’re bound to encounter it, so might as well be prepared.

I’m not one for overly complex definitions, so here’s my simplified (probably wrong) understanding of a literature review:

It’s a section in your paper where you go through previous research/literature and appreciate/criticise them. By doing this, you’re acknowledging the merits and flaws of previous works, hence allowing you to identify areas where previous researchers may have overlooked. This “gap” is something you want to fill in, and by showing to the readers that this “gap” exists, you can then demonstrate how your research can help fill it.

For example, say that you want to understand the formulation of Indonesian foreign policy through a bureaucratic politics approach. After you’ve identified your research question and determined the variables, you would want to see if anyone else has already done similar research. It turns out that someone has already laid out a theoretical framework! Good, you can use that.

But it turns out that the researcher’s observations were conducted two decades ago. Here, a new question emerges: Does the framework still hold today, especially when political conditions have changed, or is it irrelevant? You could use this to justify your research!

Of course, the above scenario is highly optimistic. Real life isn’t as bright as that. Also, maybe I’ll write about what a “contribution” is in a later post.

A good example of how to structure a literature review in a medium-length article can be found in Staniland’s article [paywall] which argues for a new framework that can be used for understanding civil-military relations in developing countries. In the literature review (which Staniland put under the subheading “The State of the Field”, Staniland addresses previous research on civil-military relations and notes their merits and flaws. Additionally, he also explores alternative explanations. After doing that, Staniland proceeds to argue for his own framework: what it is, how it works, and why it works.

Hence the function of a literature review are as follows:

  1. It allows you to avoid recreating already-done research.
  2. It makes sure that you stay updated on advancements in your field of expertise. Frameworks come and go quickly!
  3. Most importantly, it helps with “positioning”, which is a term used to describe how and why your research contributes to the existing literature.

The example which I have elaborated above is what a literature review should look like for a master’s or PhD dissertation. At the Bachelor’s level, a literature review can be less demanding (emphasis on the “can”!), as you won’t be expected to make breakthrough contributions to the literature. As far as I have seen, literature reviews at the undergraduate level are there to show that the candidate demonstrates knowledge of the field and can muster a thesis-length argument based on the existing research.

How do I write a literature review?

If you’re a master’s or PhD candidate procrastinating on work, this section isn’t for you. Actually, this entire post isn’t for you. This is intended for undergrad students who are writing their first thesis; who probably have no idea what a literature review is because their Research Methodology module did not prepare them enough. Or for those who probably lost their course notes during the mandatory internship period.

While there is no definitive method of writing the perfect literature review (let’s face it, perfection is a myth), there are some general guidelines that may be of assistance. Bear in mind that these “guidelines” reflect my personal preference; it’s perhaps better to consult your professor/thesis adviser on what they prefer.

Okay, now on to the real stuff.

How NOT to write a literature review

What I see most students do in a literature review is they review individual books/articles and don’t go beyond that. They list the book title, author, and year, and proceed to summarize the contents of the book without further evaluation of the utility of the content. This is actually called doing an “annotated bibliography” and while it’s great practice for writing a literature review, it isn’t a literature review (at best, it’s a poorly done literature review).

Remember that a literature review functions to “position” your research; to highlight its contribution to the existing debate. If you can’t do that, at least you would need to show that you are capable of building an argument based on existing research. By simply summarizing a bucket list of books without critical evaluation, this shows that the candidate doesn’t understand how to use existing research to show the relevance of their argument.  

The Basket Method of writing literature reviews

I advocate a different approach to writing a literature review: using metaphorical “idea baskets”. This is something I picked up during a short course on academic writing during my Master’s and it quickly became my favorite approach to writing literature reviews.

The basic idea is to structure a cluster of ideas/theories/research into a conceptual “basket”. You’ll then elaborate what the contents are, why they matter, and their merits/shortcomings. Then, repeat the process for another cluster of ideas/theories/research that have a connection (either supporting or against) with the previous “basket”. Repeat this as necessary. Once you’re finished, it becomes easier to see where your research will fit in.

I’ll be using the previous Staniland article extensively as an example here, so you might want to download the article to understand my explanation.

Notice that in constructing his literature review, Staniland gathers research of a certain kind into a “basket” (e.g. Threat-Based Theories of Civilian Control). He then proceeds to define the “basket” and showcase the major arguments of that “basket”, along with his own evaluation of the overall “basket”. He then creates another “basket” (Domestic Politics and Civil-Military Control) and repeats the process. He then shows how these two “baskets” have explained civil-military relations, but they haven’t done so adequately. His criticisms are put in another “basket” (Empirical Puzzles and the Limits of Existing Theories), in which he addresses alternative explanations that further exhibit the shortcomings of the previous two “baskets”.

There’s your literature review! It’s up to you on how you want to label and create the “baskets”, but you should be able to connect the “baskets” in a meaningful way that’s constructive to your thesis. Note that this method has its limitations and won’t work for some fields. However, it is a much better approach than just listing a laundry list of books and summarizing their contents.

Conclusion

I’ve covered the basics of writing a literature review, starting from whether you need it, what function it serves, and I’ve also explained the Basket Method when it comes to writing literature reviews.

Before closing, you should know that your first draft of a literature review will not be perfect. Maybe you think it was good enough, but after research/fieldwork, you find new works that you feel you need to add. This is okay; the literature review is the first thing you’ll start and perhaps the last thing you’ll finish. If these encouraging words don’t resonate with you, well, it may help someone else.

Hopefully, this has helped clear some confusion when it comes to writing literature reviews. If you have any other tips, please feel free to comment! For now, thanks for reading and Ivory Tower Writing will return next week with more academic writing advice.

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