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Political Science

Use this guide as a starting point for research in Political Science.

What is A Literature Review?


A Literature Review surveys scholarly source materials that are relevant to a person's research thesis/problem and/or a particular issue or theory. It also provides a critical analysis that summarizes and synthesizes the source materials while also demonstrating how a person's research pertains to or fits within the larger discipline of study.


Literature Reviews vary from discipline to discipline as well as across assignments, but generally a good literature review is designed to help you answer 2 questions:

  • What do we know about this particular issue, theory or subject?
  • What do we not know about this particular issue, theory or subject?

Good literature reviews also:

  • Evaluate the context of scholarly material for its contribution to the understanding of the research thesis being studied.
  • Explain the relationships between each of the works under deliberation.
  • Identify gaps in previous research.
  • Define new ways to interpret research within a discipline.
  • Address conflicts found in contradictory research previously conducted.
  • Identify the need for additional research.

For Your Literature Review Include:

1. Introduction to the topic. State the topic, purpose, and significance. Provide a brief overview outlining the central points covered.

2. Relevance and Importance of studying this topic. What direction will the review take? Specific Aspects?

3. Literature Review. Organize your review of the research literature:  Methods, Chronological, different approaches or perspectives, etc... Remember you want to find the seminal or major works on your topic Avoid discussinh each article separately. Explore relationships and aim to compare/contrast more than one article in most paragraphs.

4. Any "Lessons Learned" that can be drawn from the literature review.

5. Future Directions. State any areas for further research, i.e. gaps, omissions, inconsistencies, hitherto unexplored aspects. 

 What types of literature are considered in a literature review

Peer-Reviewed articles are usually considered the most credible sources and the most common format of literature for a review.

In addition, when doing your research, consider those articles written by scholars who have written extensively on the specific topic or related areas. 

And more ......

A literature review DOES:

  • discuss the work of others
  • describe, in a narrative fashion, the major developments that relate to your research question
  • evaluate other researchers' methods and findings
  • identify any gaps in their research
  • indicate how your research is going to be different in some way

A literature review DOES NOT:

  • simply list all the resources that you consult in developing your research (that would be a Works Cited or Works Consulted page)
  • simply list resources with a few factual, non-evaluative notes about what is in each work (that would be an Annotated Bibliography)
  • try to discuss every bit of research that has ever been done relating to your topic (that would be far too big of a task)

Still confused?  See this guide from the University of North Carolina for a more detailed explanation of lit reviews.

Tips for Writing Your Literature Review

  • Do not over "quote." If you only quote from every single author you found, then you are not showing any original thinking or analysis. Use quotes judiciously. Use quotes to highlight a particular passage or thought that exemplifies the research, theory or topic you are researching.
  • Instead use paraphrasing to report, in your own words, what the author was reporting or theorizing.
  • Summarize findings, important sections or a whole article--this is different from paraphrasing since you are not re-stating the author words but identifying the main points of what you are reading in a concise matter for your readers.
  • When synthesizing your findings for the literature review (this is when you make comparisons, establish relationships between authors' works, point out weaknesses, strengths and gaps among the literature review), you still need to give credit to these sources.
  • Short paragraphs are easier to read than long paragraphs.
  • Subheadings and subsections can help to underscore the structure of your review.
  • Do more than just summarize the readings.  A lit review is not an annotated bibliography.
  • Resist the temptation to refer to *all* the readings you've evaluated.  To begin with, focus on readings you've identified as essential or representative

Literature Review vs. Annotated Bibliography

Literature reviews and annotated bibliographies may appear similar in nature, but in fact, they vary greatly in two very important areas: purpose and format.

Differences in Purpose:

Literature Review: A literature review works to do two main things. The first is to provide a case for continuing research into a particular subject or idea by giving an overview of source materials you have discovered on a subject or idea. The second is to demonstrate how your research will fit into the the larger discipline of study by noting discipline knowledge gaps and contextulizing questions for the betterment of the discipline. Literature reviews tend to have a stated or implied thesis as well.

Annotated Bibliography: An annotated bibliography is basically an aphabetically arranged list of references that consists of citations and a brief summary and critique of each of the source materials. The element of critiquing appears to give literature reviews and annotated bibliographies their apparent similarities but in truth this is where they greatly differ. An annotated bibliography normally critiques the quality of the source material  while literature reviews concentrate on the value of the source material in its ability to answer a particular question or support an argument.  

Differences in Format:

Literature Review: A literature review is a formally written prose document very similar to journal articles.  Many literature reviews are incorporated directly into scholarly source material as part of the formal research process. The literature review is typically a required component of dissertations and theses.

Annotated Bibliography: An annotated bibliography is a formal list of citations with annotations or short descriptions and critiques of particular source materials. Annotated bibliographies act as a precursor to a literature review as an organizational tool.

Literature Review Examples

To find literature reviews in databases like Academic Search Complete:

  • Type your search term in the first search box.
  • Type literature review in the second search box.

Some sample reviews:

Ways to Organize Your Literature Review

Chronologically by Events 
If your review follows the chronological method, you could write about the materials according to when they were published. This approach should only be followed if a clear path of research building on previous research can be identified and that these trends follow a clear chronological order of development. For example, a literature review that focuses on continuing research about the emergence of German economic power after the fall of the Soviet Union.

By Publication Date
Order your sources by publication date if the order demonstrates an important trend. For instance, you could order a review of literature on environmental studies of brown fields if the progression revealed, for example, a change in the soil collection practices of the researchers who wrote and/or conducted the studies.

Thematically (“conceptual categories”)
Thematic reviews of literature are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time. However, progression of time may still be an important factor in a thematic review. For example, a review of the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics could focus on the development of online political satire. While the study focuses on one topic, the Internet’s impact on American presidential politics, it will still be organized chronologically reflecting technological developments in media. The only difference here between a "chronological" and a "thematic" approach is what is emphasized the most: the role of the Internet in presidential politics. Note however that more authentic thematic reviews tend to break away from chronological order. A review organized in this manner would shift between time periods within each section according to the point made.

A methodological approach focuses on the methods utilized by the researcher. For the Internet in American presidential politics project, one methodological approach would be to look at cultural differences between the portrayal of American presidents on American, British, and French websites. Or the review might focus on the fundraising impact of the Internet on a particular political party. A methodological scope will influence either the types of documents in the review or the way in which these documents are discussed.

(adapted from "The Literature Review"  from Organizing Your Social Research Paper, University of Southern California)

Best Practices: Quoting, Paraphrasing, etc.


Quoting*: "(a) to speak or write (a passage) from another usually with credit acknowledgment. (b) to repeat a passage especially in substantiation or illustration."

Paraphrasing*: Paraphrase is the "restatement of a text, passage, or work giving the meaning in another form."

Summarizing*: It's the process of summarizing a text or paragraph to tis main points succinctly.

Synthesizing*: "1. (a) the composition or combination of parts or elements so as to form a whole."

 *Definitions from Merriam Webster Dictionary Online: <Accessed September 1st, 2011>

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