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Literature Reviews in Sociology

Guidance, strategies and resources to support conducting & writing literature reviews in Sociology.

Literature Reviews

The term "literature review" refers to both your final product (part of an article or a stand-alone publication) and the process of conducting the review. 

" of the first steps in planning a research project is to do a literature review: that is, to trawl through all the available information sources to track down the latest knowledge, and to assess it for relevance, quality, controversy and gaps.

The review can be used to show where you have gained inspiration to develop your should also demonstrate you have a good understanding of the current conceptual frameworks in your subject, and that you can take a stance in placing your work within these."

A literature review includes: 

  1. Research theory & philosophy - to establish the intellectual context(s) of research related to your topic/ research question. 
  2. History of developments in your subject - to trace the background to present day thinking.
  3. Latest research and developments in your subject - to inform and practice, to discuss the conflicting arguments, and to detect a gap in knowledge.
  4. Research methods - to explore practical techniques that have been used, particularly those that might be relevant to your project. 

From Walliman, Nicholas. 2018. Research Methods : the Basics. Second edition. Abingdon, Oxon.


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Literature Search and review on your topic

Questions to ask: 

  • What are the key sources?
  • What are the key theories, concepts and ideas?
  • What are the epistemological and ontological grounds for the discipline?
  • What are the main questions and problems that have been addressed? 
  • How is knowledge on the topic structures and organized
  • What are the origins and definitions of the topic?
  • What are the political standpoints?
  • What are the major issues and debates about the topic?

How have approaches to these questions increased our understanding and knowledge? 

Literature Review Process

You will likely go through the search process a number of times, performing different searches with different keyword combinations, to address the different components of your literature review. 

Systematic Searching Handsearching
#1 Identify your question. Identify the key concepts and related terms. Tip:  You may want to re-phrase your question. Background reading can help you identify related terms and further define or narrow your topic.  Explore reference lists to locate other articles, books, or authors who have written on the same topic. 
#2 Find an appropriate search tool. Consider your subject matter, discipline of study, type of information needed (e.g. peer reviewed articles) Locate cited by literature to view more recent similar or adjacent research.

#3 Start with a simple search based on your key concepts. Tip: You may also have to look at literature that refers to one (not all) aspects of your research question.

Browse the table of contents of relevant journals and special issues.

#4 Use specific search strategies.

  • Use AND to join dissimilar terms.
  • Use OR to join synonyms or related terms.
  • Truncate words with * to pick up variations of that word. 
  • Use "quotation marks" for phrase searching
  • Use database limiters e.g. limit to scholarly journals. 
  • Consider searching in a specific field e.g. title (article title) or source (journal title.)
Locate an expert in the field and browse their publications.  
#5 Search and skim results. Look for the language and terms that researchers use and that the database assigns to articles (Subjects).  
#6 Switch up your searches.  Use promising new terminologyYour search may become more sophisticated.  

What Makes a Successful Literature Review?

Here are eight steps toward completing a successful literature review.

  1. Search terms: Formulate appropriate search terms as the basis for your literature searches.
  2. Database search tools: Use database search tools to identify relevant journal articles and related materials.
  3. Key publications: Identify a series of key publications in your area and use these as the bases for citation reference searches.
  4. Web search tools: Use web search tools to identify pieces of interest, in particular grey literature, relevant to you.
  5. Scanning: Scan abstracts of articles, reviews of books, executive summaries of government reports, and other summaries of published work to determine if you need to read the piece in full.
  6. Reading: Read the pieces you have identified and make notes from them. A synthesis grid may be useful for note taking and for facilitating writing the review.
  7. Thematic organization: Use these notes as the basis of a thematic organization of your literature review.
    • Note, a chronological or methodological organization may align better with your research question.
  8. Writing the review: Write the review, based on the thematic organization, in such a way that you can construct one or more interesting research questions which you will address in your investigation.

From Byrne, D. (2017). What makes a successful literature review?. Project Planner. 10.4135/9781526408518.

SAGE Research Methods is a collection of resources and tools intended to assist researchers as they plan, conduct and analyze their research projects. Access these tools under Research Methods at the top of the SAGE Research Methods platform.