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Researching & Writing Literature Reviews in Religious Studies: Writing Your Review

1. What are the steps in writing a literature review?

  1. Choose a well-defined topic, issue, or problem that you want to explore.
  2. Research: to discover what has been written about the topic.
    • Identify and find the “big names” and best publications in the research area.
    • Conduct an online literature search using library databases.
    • Look in bibliographies of the most recent books and journal articles.
    • Avoid the popular press, such as Time, Newsweek, Atlantic Monthly, and websites like Wikipedia, unless your project requires you to look at such sources.
  3. Critical Appraisal: to evaluate the literature, determine the relationship between the sources and ascertain what has been done already and what still needs to be done.
  4. Writing: to explain what you have found.

3. How is a literature review organized?

A literature review is written in the style of an expository essay (i.e., an essay that explains a topic in a logical and straightforward manner); it comprises:

1. an Introduction: Gives a quick idea of the topic of the literature review, such as the central theme or organizational pattern and the scope of the review. This section may also provide an introduction to the texts/authors that will be discussed in the review.

2. an Analysis: Contains your discussion and analysis of the texts included in the review.

Analysis means to break something up into parts, pieces, reasons, or steps and look at how those pieces are related to each other. Analysis usually goes together with synthesis because first you break down a concept / idea into its important parts (analysis), so you can draw useful conclusions or make decisions about the topic or problem (synthesis).

The analysis should include:

  • The authors' arguments and how the authors attempt to prove their arguments.
  • The argument you want to make about the texts.
  • Indicate why the texts are important for study in a particular methodology or theory and what they say about the field of religious studies.

3. a Synthesis: Provides a synthesis and evaluation of the information you found by analyzing the texts

Synthesis means to combine a number of different pieces into a whole. Synthesis is about concisely summarizing and linking different sources in order to review the literature on a topic, make recommendations, and connect your topic to the research.

Your synthesis can be done in a number of different ways (see below).

2. Determine the scope of your review

Determine the scope of your literature search.

  • What exactly will you cover in your review?
  • How comprehensive will it be?
  • How long?
    • How many sources will you use?
  • How detailed?
    • Will it be a review of ALL relevant material or will the scope be limited to more recent material, e.g., the last five years?
  • Are you focusing on methodological approaches; on theoretical issues; on qualitative or quantitative research?
  • Will you broaden your search to seek literature in related disciplines?
  • Will you confine your reviewed material to English language only or will you include research in other languages too?

4. Ways to sythesize your analysis

Your synthesis can be done in a number of different ways:

  • Chronological: One of the easiest ways to structure the literature review is to discuss the works in the order in which they were published. In a chronological review you would discuss the earliest works and then gradually work your way logically through time to the references that are most recent.
  • Thematic: Thematic reviews of literature are organized around a topic or issue, rather than the progression of time. In a thematic review, you will group and discuss your sources in terms of the themes or topics they cover. This method is often a stronger one organizationally, and it can help you resist the urge to summarize your sources. By grouping themes or topics of research together, you will be able to demonstrate the types of topics that are important to your research. It is very important, however, that while you keep the themes discrete, you still link them together in your literature review by the things they share in common.
  • Methodological: A methodological approach differs from the two above in that the focusing factor usually does not have to do with the content of the material. Instead, it focuses on the “methods” used by the researcher(s) or writer(s).
  • Theoretical: The theoretical literature review help establish what theories already exist, the relationships between them, to what degree the existing theories have been investigated, and to develop new hypotheses to be tested. Often this approach is used to help establish a lack of appropriate theories or reveal that current theories are inadequate for explaining new or emerging research problems. The unit of analysis can focus on a theoretical concept or a whole theory or framework.

No matter which method you choose, remember:  Within each section of a literature review, it is important to discuss how the research relates to other studies (how is it similar or different, what other studies have been done, etc.) as well as to demonstrate how it relates to your own work. This is what the review is for: don’t leave this connection out!