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PLS301 - Greenberg

Political Science Research Methods

The Process of Writing a Literature Review

Mastering synthetic writing is key to a successful literature review. Use these resources to learn how to analyze the articles you want to use for your literature review, keep track of common themes using an article analysis matrix, and how to convert the notes in the analysis matrix into a piece of synthetic writing.

Think of working on your literature review as a multi-step process:

  1. Identify a topic.
  2. Find research articles on that topic.
  3. Read and analyze each article.
  4. Compare all of the themes addressed in the articles.
  5. Use your notes from the article analysis matrix to decide how to organize your literature review.
  6. Write your literature review by discussing one theme at a time--how is this theme covered in the literature?
  7. Your literature review will also need an introduction and a conclusion. Some students like to start with the introduction, while others find it is easier to write the introduction after they have written the body of their literature review.
  8. Don't forget to include References at the end of your paper (and to cite them properly with the text)!

Looking at Models

Examine the model literature review below.

  • Look for major ideas.
  • Determine how (and why) the author organized the literature review - thematically, chronologically, or methodologically.
  • Consider what rhetorical devices the author used to walk the reader through this section of their paper.

Ask the following questions as you read. Reflect on why the author made specific decisions in their writing.

Did the literature review...?

- big picture stuff -

  • engage with specialists in one discipline, or generalists in more than one discipline?
  • contain headings throughout to identify different themes/concepts?

- writing conventions -

  • flow in an engaging manner?
  • contain topic and transition sentences in each paragraph?
  • use appropriate citations?
  • put key words or concepts in italics/bold, making them easy to identify?

- analysis/evaluation -

  • describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration, noting contradictory studies?
  • include major debates among scholars?
  • provide a new interpretation of the topic, or new solution to a problem?
  • trace the intellectual progression of the field, or reveal a new trend in the field?
  • highlight an aspect of the field that is missing?
  • discuss seminal works (influential studies that changed the direction of the field)?
  • explain how the existing literature intersects with their project, and/or how their project complements the existing literature?

Article Analysis Matrix

Create a matrix by listing the articles you want to analyze in the top row of the matrix, and the major concepts in the far left column. You will then review each article to see what's covered in that article. Describe how the concepts are discussed in each article. When you are done, you will be able to easily see which articles share commonalities, and where there are gaps in the research regarding coverage of certain concepts.

  Article 1 Article 2 Article 3 Article 4
Article Analysis Matrix Example: The impact of campaign ads on voters' views of candidates
Types of Ads Television and Radio ads Internet ads and Television ads Television ads that attack the opponent OR highlight candidate's platform Internet ads that attack the opponent OR highlight candidate's platform
Participants     Male and female subjects age 18-22  Male and female subjects age 18-50 Female subjects age 55-75 Male and female subjects age 35-45
Duration of study   2 weeks 6 weeks 2 months 2 months
Key findings    Subjects who viewed television ads had more negative opinions of candidates than those who only listened to radio ads Subjects under 35 were more likely to view internet ads than television ads, while subjects over 35+ were more likely to view television ads Subjects preferred candidates whose ads highlighted their platforms than candidates whose ads attacked their opponent Male subjects preferred candidates whose ads attacked their opponent, and female subjects preferred candidates whose ads highlighted their platforms
Limitations Short study; college age participants likely don't represent the broader American electorate Does not explain what types of ads (platform-based or attack-based) the participants viewed No male subjects       Small age range

What does this example matrix tell you? What ideas are well covered in the literature? Which are lacking? What do the different articles have in common?

It may be beneficial to add additional columns (for more articles) or additional rows. The more work you do on the front end, thoroughly analyzing various aspects of each article, the easier it will be to pull it all together in your paper.

Synthetic Writing

A literature review is not the same as a research paper. The point of a literature review is to synthesize the research of others without making a new argument or scholarly contribution. A literature review is also not an annotated bibliography. You should not write about each study you are reviewing in turn, but instead write synthetically to highlight the current state of the literature.

Key Points to Consider:

  • The purpose of a literature review is to report the current state of the topic. Literature reviewed should be relatively recent, unless you are delving into the history of the topic.
  • Discuss different themes within your literature review rather than individual articles. It will help if you pull information from 2-3 articles for each theme you discuss.
  • All works cited should be both in the text of the literature review and the bibliography
  • Avoid passive voice (ex: It was found that...); Use active voice ("Smith (2013) reported that...")
  • Report what the literature says, not what you think