A literature review can be regarded as the soul of any academic research, as it provides a definite direction to the study, marks the boundaries within which the researcher will function and filters out factors that could divert the scope and focus of an otherwise well-conceived research work. Although the chapter on the review of literature comes only after the introduction in the final thesis, the review process would have begun much before that. More often than not, it is possible that a literature review is seen as merely a record of past studies, which would make it sound, unbearably dull and tedious to write, but in reality, this is not the case! The literature review is much beyond a report of past research studies and is much more nuanced that it actually sounds.
Begin with the simplest aspect first. This is possibly what researchers would do when they are still not sure about the topic or are still learning about it. One of the primary functions of a review is to document what has been done so far, what were the assumptions made, what was the data like, what was the method followed to make sense of the data and so on, write about them. Discovering entails acquainting oneself, and the one who would eventually refer the thesis, with the research study. However, there is a limit to how much you can do it, especially while writing, as focusing only on describing the work would defeat the purpose of the review altogether. Limit the discovery to what is relevant and learn to stop when it is time to dig deeper into the topic.
In order for a researcher to do more than just report past studies in the review chapter, it is necessary to link the literature reviewed with the variables being considered for the study. This is quite challenging, as it would require a researcher to pick literature that is relevant to the research and discard, albeit with a heavy heart, the rest. Therefore, it is important to write what could be relevant for the study at hand. It would make sense to review papers that have used similar variables, employed related research techniques, or employed a different approach while dealing with a topic similar to the one under consideration. This would explain why your study employed a particular way of looking at the research question or considered a different set of similar constructs. This would not only establish the significance of the methods and ideology followed by you, but would also provide an idea of how your study enriches existing understanding. This brings us to the final and essential aspect of the literature review.
Map the Gap
An important function of a literature review, contrary to what is popularly believed, is to identify what is unknown, which helps a researcher to decide on a particular research topic. Although by the time you sit down to write a review of literature you would have figured out the research topic and much more, writing about the gaps that were identified makes it simpler for yourself and the future academics to make sense of why your study was conducted in the first place. Only describing what has been done would leave the researcher with an exhaustive list of authors and papers, but without any idea of what needs to be done. Therefore, the review should be written in such way that it not only describes what is known, but also inches closer towards what needs to be known.
While writing a literature review, it would be much simpler to mimic what you did before you arrived at a particular research topic, you pored through the research journals to get a hold on the topic of interest, you singled out the variables and constructs you preferred to study and you identified what was missing or what was not studied. This pattern can be adopted for the entire review chapter as well as individual reviews. Begin by describing the research, move on and explore the variables and their interplay and conclude with an account of what more can be done to make sense of and to explain the phenomenon better.
A review of literature is the journey from acquainting with what is known, to identifying what is unknown and a write up on the same should aptly describe this journey in order to be meaningful.
This is only a tip of the iceberg and there is a lot more to talk about! Watch this space for more on the process of literature review.
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