Recently some graduate students that just recently graduated had a slogan of KSS(“Keep it Simple Stupid”) posted on their wall as a reminder not to let things get too complicated. Their slogan inspired me to write this post about writing a literature review.
A literature review can be somewhat daunting. A literature review is often used at the beginning of your study to explain what is already known about your topic and also provides a rationale for the study you are about to undertake. For example if you wanted to study “Young Asian women’s leadership roles in corporate America.” You might begin broadly with studies that dealt with leadership roles in corporate America. Keep in mind, when constructing the literature review it is important to write from broad topics to your specific topic.You need to consider how did previous studies define leadership? How did they define “corporate America”? How did they define young? What were the overall findings? Next you might narrow your search to look at leadership studies that compared men to women. Next, you might then look for studies that just focused on women, followed by studies that compared women from different racial and ethnic groups. Did they find racial and ethnic differences? Were the samples too small to find racial and ethnic difference? Were all of them quantitative studies? If you found a study that focused on black women how might a study of Asian women be different and why? These types of questions help to provide a rationale for your study. In general the reader would want to know why would you focus on young Asian women if we did not know anything a about leadership for the larger group of women either young or old.
For students in the hard sciences you can substitute a type of species, a tool, drug, a compound, an equation… instead of race and you would still have the consider your literature review in the same logical manner.
Another example that I used in the past when giving a talk to some mathematicians, who just could not see the connection with the social science example above. The example is as follows.
Let say for example you were writing about the number 7 and planning to use a multivariate approach.
Study A. Says 5+2=7
Study B. Says 4+3=7
Study C. Says 7+0= 7
Study D. Says 4+1+1+1=7
Study E. Says 5+1+a=7
Study F. Says 4+x=7
Study G. Say 6+1=7
Instead of saying Study A said this, and study B says …etc., you as the writer of the literature review could start by writing:
Several researchers have focused their efforts on studying how to calculate the number seven. Whereas most researchers who examine this issue take a two variable approach to calculate this value (Citations A, B, C,F,G), other take a multivariate approach (Citation, D, E). In particular, study A finds that 7 can be calculated by starting with the number 5. Using a similar method, study C and G find that a starting value of 7 and 6 works just as well. Also two recent studies (citation B, C) began the process with the value 4. Whereas study B adds 3 to the equation, study F substitute a variable x to indicate the unknown value. While these studies have contributed to our understanding of how to calculate seven, these approaches have mainly relied on a simplistic direct calculation of two distinct values. Few studies have calculated seven using a multivariate approach (citation E, D). Studies D and E examine seven using a multivariate method by starting with 4 and 5 respectively. Whereas study D relies on four values, study E rely on three to calculate 7. The results of these studies suggest that seven can understood using a variety of mechanisms that have yet to be explored. Based on this multilevel approach, this study attempts to calculate 7 using six values.
While this example might be a bit silly, it is important to focus on the bigger picture. This example points out the organization of the literature for the reader. Some people need practical examples or even simplistic examples to help them move forward. If it helps you great if it doesn’t just skip over it. I’ll try to make it more complicated next time:)