Literature Reviews are typically found in research articles, grant and research proposals, theses, and dissertations. In a literature review the author selects relevant past research and synthesizes it into a coherent discussion. In your review you will not only present the sources but also weave them together in a way that you present a coherent picture of the research available on a subject or in a field.
Literature reviews can be stand-alone projects or be a section in a bigger project, like the introduction in a journal article or a chapter in a dissertation. They exist in order to show mastery of a subject and also to point out how your research may fit within the field. With this in mind, in the literature review you should think of the literature review in narrative terms: you weave the sources together, illustrating the scholarly conversation which has taken place in the field.
When academics talk about "reviewing" the "literature" what they mean is that a writer searches for sources (oftentimes scholarly), reads them, provides an overview of the field, describes or summarizes the sources, and, lastly, evaluates them. Your review should identify major themes, recurring concepts, and/or critical gaps. It can be organized in different ways, too. The organization depends on your literature review's guiding idea: you could focus on the major works, recurring themes, or order of publication, among others. Also, keep in mind that depending on the topic, you may need a broad overview or you may need a narrow focus (by ethnic group, by class, by gender, by time period, etc).
When you are going to work on a literature review you need to:
- Choose a topic or research question to guide your search
- Look for sources
- Read sources (take notes on recurring concepts, names, dates, publications, as well as questions that come up)
- Analyze sources: what topics do the sources address? What questions do they ask? What issues/populations do they ignore?
- Synthesize the information into a coherent discussion