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IV. The Structure of Your Literature Review

Sep 09, 2013 by Dr Sally

Once you have analyzed, synthesized, and evaluated the relevant sources for your topic, you need to think about presenting the material in a way that will best shape your argument and make sense to your readers.

Think of organizing a literature review as a lawyer would present a case to a jury. The way a lawyer organizes evidence is crucial to how well the jury understands the argument and moves from one piece of evidence to the next. Obviously a lawyer chooses which piece of evidence to present first, and chooses the next piece of evidence based on the previous evidence and what the jury needs to understand to evaluate the next piece. This repeats until the lawyer has presented all the essential and necessary evidence to understand the situation at hand. As the lawyer presenting your case, you need to organize and structure the evidence for your argument so that the jury knows how you think of your evidence. Likewise, in the literature review, the categories and concepts or themes you use to organize your evidence help the reader evaluate your argument.

There are two primary ways to organize and structure a literature review: chronologically and thematically.

The Chronological Literature Review

In a literature review organized chronologically, you group and discuss your sources in order of their publication date, highlighting the changes in research in the field and your specific topic over time. This structure is useful for reviews focusing on research methodology, historiographical papers, and other writing in which you want to emphasize how ideas have developed over time. For example, a literature review on theories of Alzheimer’s disease might examine the literature by first providing the earliest medical developments of treatment and progressing to the latest models and treatments. This type of organization is related to what is referred to as a descriptive review in which you sequence the review according to how your topic has been organized by others. However, a frequent criticism of either the chronological or descriptive review is that you have relied on someone else’s organizing principles rather than your own synthesis of the material.

The Thematic Literature Review

In a review organized thematically, you group and discuss your sources in terms of the themes, theoretical concepts, and topics that either you decide are important to understanding your topic or that you have identified from reviewing the key studies on your topic. This structure is considered stronger than the chronological organization because you define the theories, constructs, categories, or themes that are important to your research. If you have used one of the synthesis matrices described in the previous blog, you will be in a good position to organize your review thematically. In these types of reviews, you explain why certain information is treated together, and your headings define your unique organization of the topic. The sequence of the concepts or themes should be from broad to specific.

The organization is often referred to as a funnel in which the discrete pieces of information are funneled from higher-level concepts to the specific studies upon which your own research is based.

For example, if the topic of the literature review is altruism in children, then you might develop sections on the definitions of altruism, theories of altruism, the biological basis of altruism, the benefits of altruism, and at the bottom of the funnel you might synthesize the themes found in the key sources upon which your study is based and identify the gaps in the knowledge about altruism in children that you will address in your proposed research study.

Whether you choose a chronological or thematic structure, as you begin to write the sections of your review, remember that the transitions you use will indicate to your readers your perspective on the material. Good transitions connect ideas and paragraphs and help readers understand how ideas work together, reference one another, agree or disagree, and build on one another. Your transitions need to tell the reader how each new point or piece of evidence fits with the one before it and what you think about it. Your reader should never have to figure out why you chose to include the quotation or evidence you did, or what it means. The transitions weave together your argument as you present the case for your proposed study.

In organizing your review, remember the aim is not simply to present and summarize the ideas about your topic as they have been laid out over time by others. You need to write a review that demonstrates that you understand the literature on your topic, have wrestled with the ideas, and have synthesized the issues in a unique way. If you make sense of others’ ideas in the context of your topic, your reader also can make sense of them.

In the next blog, you will learn how to present the ideas of others in your literature review as you guide your reader through the text.

  • Samuel Opoku says:

    Feb 14, 2016 at 3:40 pm

    hello, please am doing a project on the topic: corporate identity. the scope is limited to branding of five t shirts, two umbrellas and two wall clock please i want you to enlighten on how to go about with the literature review thanks

  • Adenrele Adebayo says:

    Aug 06, 2016 at 7:10 am

    Thanks for the tips on literature review.

  • Ifeoma says:

    Nov 14, 2016 at 9:17 pm

    This is a very useful guide. Thank you Ifeoma

  • Sandra says:

    Dec 06, 2017 at 6:28 pm

    The information on literature reviews is very informative and helpful when doing research topics. It's a lot to learn and knowledgeable information when doing research topics.

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