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SOC 001: Introductory Sociology

Carol Cowan-Crawford

Literature Reviews

What is a Literature Review?
The literature review is a critical look at the existing research that is significant to the work that you are carrying out. This overview identifies prominent research trends in addition to assessing the overall strengths and weaknesses of the existing research.

Purpose of the Literature Review

  • To provide background information about a research topic.
  • To establish the importance of a topic.
  • To demonstrate familiarity with a topic/problem.
  • To “carve out a space” for further work and allow you to position yourself in a scholarly conversation.

Characteristics of an effective literature review
In addition to fulfilling the purposes outlined above, an effective literature review provides a critical overview of existing research by

  • Outlining important research trends.
  • Assessing strengths and weaknesses (of individual studies as well the existing research as a whole).
  • Identifying potential gaps in knowledge.
  • Establishing a need for current and/or future research projects.

Steps of the Literature Review Process

1) Planning: identify the focus, type, scope and discipline of the review you intend to write.
2) Reading and Research: collect and read current research on your topic. Select only those sources that are most relevant to your project.
3) Analyzing: summarize, synthesize, critique, and compare your sources in order to assess the field of research as a whole.
4) Drafting: develop a thesis or claim to make about the existing research and decide how to organize your material.
5) Revising: revise and finalize the structural, stylistic, and grammatical issues of your paper.

This process is not always a linear process; depending on the size and scope of your literature review, you may find yourself returning to some of these steps repeatedly as you continue to focus your project.


These steps adapted from the full workshop offered by the Graduate Writing Center at Penn State. 

Literature Review Format


  • Provide an overview of the topic, theme, or issue.
  • Identify your specific area of focus.
  • Describe your methodology and rationale. How did you decide which sources to include and which to exclude? Why? How is your review organized?
  • Briefly discuss the overall trends in the published scholarship in this area.
  •  Establish your reason for writing the review.


  •  Find the best organizational method for your review.
  •  Summarize sources by providing the most relevant information.
  •  Respectfully and objectively critique and evaluate the studies.
  •  Use direct quotations sparingly and only if appropriate.


  •  Summarize the major findings of the sources that you reviewed, remembering to keep the focus on your topic.
  •  Evaluate the current state of scholarship in this area (ex. flaws or gaps in the research, inconsistencies in findings) 
  •  Identify any areas for further research.
  •  Conclude by making a connection between your topic and some larger area of study such as the discipline.