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The literature review

The literature review is a working document: it will be scoped and updated throughout the research process in response to changes both in the research question and the focus of the project. The literature review is the heart of the thesis, establishing the framework and terms of reference as well as the candidate’s understanding of the topic. It is the map upon which the scholar places his/her own “pin” to locate their work within the discipline and field. Many PhD examiners will head straight to the Literature Review chapter when examining a thesis. If this chapter is not of doctoral quality and standard then it can have a damaging impact on the rest of the thesis.

"An analytical synthesis covering all known literature on the problem, including that in other languages demonstrating high level and conceptual thinking and both summative and formative evaluation of previous work on the problem. There is also depth and breadth of discussion on relevant philosophical traditions and the ways in which they relate to the problem"

C. Hart, Doing a Literature Review (Sage, 1998)

Methodological Knowledge

When assessing the current methodological approaches in your field you might consider the following:

  • Agreed methods
  • Tools used - standard approaches, tools, arguments, procedures
  • Agreed criteria and methods for evaluation
  • Agreed concepts/conceptual framework
  • How is the choice justified?
  • How are contributions evaluated?

Critical review

  • Are the findings/arguments valid?
  • Is the methodology appropriate and sound?
  • Are the conclusions sound?
  • Alternative explanations
  • Has the study been cited in other publications? Approved or criticised?


(See C. Hart, 'Searching for and reviewing the literature', 183)

The following checklist marks an effective literature search and review:

  • Shows a clear understanding of your topic
  • Includes all the key landmark studies
  • States honestly the arguments presented in the literature
  • Reaches conclusions which are justifiable
  • Shows the gap in knowledge which your research intends to address