Magoosh GRE

How to Write a Dissertation: The Literature Review

| June 5, 2012 | 1 Comment

First of all you need to realize that you cannot review all the literature that has been written in the field covered by your research. However you do have to show extensive reading in areas which have been well-researched. The following article would coach you on how to write a literature review for your dissertation.

There are always minor research studies, some of which will be obscure and not well-known – although your supervisor will probably have read them- and if he/she hasn’t then your external Marker will have done. This being the case it is better not to include such studies in the literature review, if your sole objective for doing so is to impress the supervisor and Marker with the extensive range of your background reading.

Another problem with including too many small studies is that it will make your supervisor think that you have over-used secondary sources.


The Historical Approach to the Literature Review

If you take this historical approach to your literature review, you will start with the first major work in the area covered by your research. However if your area of research has a very long, time-honoured history then you could instead start with a more recent research study of your choosing and show how subsequent studies have agreed, or modified or perhaps even cast a great deal of doubt on this research study. You will then state where your own research fits in with that already done.

You need to show your supervisor that you understand where your research stands within the historical framework of research into your chosen area. Of course you also have to be up-to-date with the latest developments in your field, so you will give an historical overview if you choose this approach to your literature review section.

 Read More: How to Choose a Dissertation Topic

The Schools of Thought Approach to the Literature Review

If you adapt the “schools of thought” approach to your literature review section, you will have to include works done by academics who have different ideological bases for their research. You will need to discuss, for example, the Marxist approach to the topic, the constructivists’ approach, the post-modern approach and so on. You will also have to explain in which ideological “camp” your research fits.

For this approach you should mention the major works which are representative of the different school of thought and do this in sections; one for each school of thought.


Building on Previous Research

Your research topic may be building on previous research, but you may be taking a fresh perspective; for example your research might involve a different culture from the research undertaken in the past. In doing this you may be attempting to test the validity of earlier research to ascertain if the conclusions hold true in a different culture from that studied in those earlier research works. You may be testing the validity of a piece of research which was done some time ago, say in the 1960s and be attempting to prove or disprove its findings within a modern context.

If your research falls into this category, then you need to think very carefully about the works you include in your literature review and match those included as closely as possible with your own research.


Remember that the literature review is not a place to discuss your own research. You do, however need to show where your research comes in the scheme of other research on the same topic.

You should refer back to this literature review in the discussion or findings section of your dissertation. For example you might write “This is consistent with the findings of Carrol L. (2011) as reported in the literature review. Then there is no need for further elucidation.

Whichever approach you take in writing your literature review, stick to it and don’t mix up the different approaches. If you have taken notes well during your reading then the literature review section will not pose a problem for you.

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Category: Dissertation Writing Guide

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