An important part of writing a thesis or dissertation is writing a solid literature review. The aim of a literature review is to give your reader a sense of the research paradigm you are working in, what kinds of literature you will be working with or against, and where your dissertation will fit in to the existing literature (will it fill a gap, or develop on existing ideas?). It is perhaps the most arduous aspect of the dissertation, as it takes a lot of poring over journals and weeding out dead ends, but it is a fundamental part of the project, as it not only gives your reader a sense of where you are coming from, but will help you shape your analysis.
You’ll need to cast your net pretty wide to begin with. Google Scholar is a good place to start. Search for some of your major research topics and start to explore the literature that comes up. When you find something good, follow up on the literature referenced in that article, as this will tend to lead you on to more relevant works. As you go, you will find yourself better able to narrow your searches and get more specific. Not everything that is related to your topic will be relevant to your literature review. The review should not be a simple list or summary of existing literature, but should show critical thinking and discussion of the literature that will be used to inform your work.
Remember that everything you discuss in your literature review should link back in some way to your research question/hypothesis. The point is to establish how you will be approaching the project, and a simple overview of the literature will not be enough. Get a sense of the literature that exists and then sort it into categories and determine how each category will fit into your overarching project. Finally, make sure that this comes across clearly in the written review. It is better to limit the number of categories and explore fewer ideas deeply than it is to skim the surface of many. This will help develop a strong thread that should run through your whole project. As with conducting the search, it is best to start your discussion with broader theoretical concepts and then narrow down your discussion to studies that relate to your thesis. An editor, who can help ensure that your argument remains clear throughout, is especially useful at this stage.
A literature review can be a draining process, but if well-structured, it should provide a solid guide for your project and lighten your workload as you go.
Robin Field holds a BA in English and Linguistics from the University of Cape Town where she is currently working toward her Master’s degree in Linguistics with a focus on gender and game studies.