Hack College

Write a literature review

Woman taking fieldnotes in Hong Kong.

You are sitting in a cafe with a group of friends, talking about a particular issue in depth for about 30 minutes. Because you are on a caffeine buzz, you’ve covered multiple angles and multiple arguments about this issue, and while not everyone completely agrees on a particular perspective, everyone is eager to move on to the next topic (before ‘Hitler’ gets brought in to elevate the argument to absurdity). All of a sudden, some noob who just walked into the cafe and overheard a bit of your conversation, tries to join the conversation by saying something that someone had said fifteen minutes ago.

We do literature reviews because no one wants to be that irritating noob.

A literature review provides an overview of the published information about a particular ethnographic subject area or a body of specialized theory. Ethnographic subject areas (i.e., sports in Asia, Latino immigrants in the United States) specifically look at a particular cultural phenomena in a particular place, while specialized theory (i.e., sports and society, diaspora ethnicity) will address similar questions but in different ethnographic regions. Literature reviews can contain both, especially if your topic has been widely written on.

Like an academic research paper, it features a particular argument – but unlike an ethnographic research paper, the focus of your analysis will not be a particular social group or cultural practice, but a synthesis of what other social analysts have said. It is a useful step in the research process, because by reviewing the literature, you will be able to:

  • Clarify the focus of your research by narrowing down the issues involved in your research
  • Contextualize your own thinking with what others have said on the subject
  • See what other questions you need to address
  • Construct a deeper analytical framework for your project

A good literature review is comprehensive, in that a wide array of different perspectives and approaches are brought into discussion. It is also current, in that it contains the most up-to-date publications on your topic. A good literature review is analytical, in that it breaks down the field into categories of approaches, so that different themes or research questions become salient.

Like any prose, a literature review has an introduction, body of text, conclusion, and bibliography. The introduction features your take on the literature that looks like a thesis statement – it argues that a specific approach (which could be a combination of a number of different approaches) is the best way to understand a particular social group or cultural practice. The body of the literature review contains summaries and synthesis of the literature in your field, and is organized either thematically (the categories of approaches, often the best way to present the literature), chronologically (showing how seminal authors have structured the discourse within a field), or methodologically (arranged by research methods). Not every work needs to be summarized, if it is part of what you see as a thematic group – but it should be cited. You should try to avoid direct quotes, unless they are pivotal in establishing a theme. Lastly, it should include an extensive bibliography, with each citation showing up somewhere in the text.

Your literature review is designed to help you understand the wider context of your project. Depending upon your project, your review can either be of the “ethnographic specific” type or “specialized theory” type. Think of this as a draft of your final paper – much of it can (and should) be included in it. There is no specific limit on the number of citations, but I cannot see one that has fewer than five citations adequately covering your topic; don’t forget to include, if applicable, readings from the class. Hint: articles are better than books, unless you find the exact book on your topic (both ethnographically and theoretically).

Other resources on literature reviews: