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Literature Reviews in the Social Sciences: Home

What is a literature review?

Did you know that a literature review is a research method?

The term literature review can either refer to a type of research paper that relies on existing scholarly literature to help develop new ideas, or it can refer to a portion of a paper, in which a review of the existing literature serves to inform an original study that the paper documents. In the first case, the literature review serves as its own type of research method. In the second case, the primary research method will depend on the type of study being conducted and the data collected from that study.

Think of scholarly papers like a conversation. A paper takes a look at what people are saying on a particular topic and then adds something new to the conversation based on their own research. A literature review is how scholars get caught up on the conversation so they will know what to ask or say next.

A literature review can be a simple summary of the sources, but it usually has an organizational pattern that combines both summary and synthesis.

A summary is a recap of the important information of the source, but a synthesis is a re-organization of that information that results in new ideas. 

Sage Research Methods method map entry for Literature Review, including broader terms, related terms, and narrower terms

Click the image above to explore the Literature Review entry in the Methods Map from Sage Research Methods.

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Why is a Literature Review Important?

A literature review is important because it:

  • Explains the background of research on a topic.
  • Demonstrates why a topic is significant to a subject area.
  • Helps focus your own research questions or problems
  • Discovers relationships between research studies/ideas.
  • Suggests unexplored ideas or populations
  • Identifies major themes, concepts, and researchers on a topic.
  • Tests assumptions; may help counter preconceived ideas and remove unconscious bias.
  • Identifies critical gaps, points of disagreement, or potentially flawed methodology or theoretical approaches.
  • Indicates potential directions for future research.

Attribution Note

Most of this guide's content was copied from A Crash Course in Lit Reviews by University of Texas Arlington, a guide created by Janet Burka and licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-Share Alike 4.0 International License. Some content and formatting has been adapted for use at Ursuline College.