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The initial literature review

It is important to draw a distinction between the initial literature review and literature review as a research method. The initial literature review forms the start of the research proposal and nearly always features in the completed research project. Literature review can, in addition, be used as a research method to answer one or more research questions. This section will focus on the initial literature review.

The main focus of the initial literature review is to provide a justification for the posing of your research questions and suggest a basis for the research methods. The review is inevitably selective and it is helpful therefore to explain why you have selected some literature and not others.

The definition of literature used here is wide. It must usually include academic books and peer-reviewed articles but may also make reference to other texts e.g. the popular press, policy documents, professional publications, institutional documents, departmental papers, anecdotal observations and comments, objects, pictures, recordings, web sites, other artefacts..... Whatever 'texts' are used, they need to be marshalled carefully to provide a case for the research questions and methods. Consider deleting any material that, on reflection, does not work towards this goal.

Core reading provided in the module pack

Chapter 6 entitled The review of the literature in Bell (2010)
Judith Bell draws a distinction between a furniture sale catalogue and a critical approach to literature review. The former is wholly descriptive and consists of a mere list of authors. The latter involves comparing the findings of one researcher to others and evaluating these. She goes on to provide 2 examples of literature review. The chapter concludes with a checklist in which Bell suggests it is important to watch one's use of language and be careful not to claim that something as been proved, established or shown, unless this can be justified.

Next steps
Bell's ideas can be used to assess the progress of your literature review. It is helpful to draw a balance between descriptive and evaluative writing. For example, a more descriptive style might be confined to: Jones (2012) stated A and B. A more evaluative style might be: Jones (2012) stated A and B, and I believe that A is valuable because of X.....but B neglects Y.....

It is also useful to consider the style of expression and language used in Bell's examples of literature review.

Optional extension activities
1/ Chapter 4 in Biggam (2008) for an alternative take on literature review.
2/ Hart (1998) for a book length treatment.