Literature Review

Reviewing Social Science Literature

As discussed by the University Library at the University of California at Santa Cruz:

Not to be confused with a book review, a literature review surveys scholarly articles, books and other sources (e.g. dissertations, conference proceedings) relevant to a particular issue, area of research, or theory, providing a description, summary, and critical evaluation of each work. The purpose is to offer an overview of significant literature published on a topic.

Similar to primary research, development of the literature review requires four stages:

  • Problem formulation-which topic or field is being examined and what are its component issues?
  • Literature search-finding materials relevant to the subject being explored
  • Data evaluation-determining which literature makes a significant contribution to the understanding of the topic
  • Analysis and interpretation-discussing the findings and conclusions of pertinent literature

Literature reviews should comprise the following elements:

  • An overview of the subject, issue or theory under consideration, along with the objectives of the literature review
  • Division of works under review into categories (e.g. those in support of a particular position, those against, and those offering alternative theses entirely)
  • Explanation of how each work is similar to and how it varies from the others
  • Conclusions as to which pieces are best considered in their argument, are most convincing of their opinions, and make the greatest contribution to the understanding and development of their area of research 

In assessing each piece, consideration should be given to:

  • Provenance-What are the author's credentials? Are the author's arguments supported by evidence (e.g. primary historical material, case studies, narratives, statistics, recent scientific findings)?
  • Objectivity-Is the author's perspective even-handed or prejudicial? Is contrary data considered or is certain pertinent information ignored to prove the author's point?
  • Persuasiveness-Which of the author's theses are most/least convincing?
  • Value-Are the author's arguments and conclusions convincing? Does the work ultimately contribute in any significant way to an understanding of the subject?

A literature review may constitute an essential chapter of a thesis or dissertation, or may be a self-contained review of writings on a subject. In either case, its purpose is to:

  • Place each work in the context of its contribution to the understanding of the subject under review
  • Describe the relationship of each work to the others under consideration
  • Identify new ways to interpret, and shed light on any gaps in, previous research
  • Resolve conflicts amongst seemingly contradictory previous studies
  • Identify areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort
  • Point the way forward for further research
  • Place one's original work (in the case of theses or dissertations) in the context of existing literature

The literature review itself, however, does not present new primary scholarship.

View the video "Research" for a closer look at the role of research in writing. Scroll down to the selected video title and click on the VoD icon to view. 

For more information on writing literature reviews, see:

Research in the Social Sciences

Research resources can be broken up into two main categories:  Primary and Secondary. 





Allow the reader to get as close as possible to the event, experience, or experiment; are recorded from the original experimenter's point of view

To study the actual topic or issue


Analyzes or restates a primary source; from the point of view of a particular interpreter

To uncover what others have said/argued about the specific topic or issue

When you are reading empirical journal studies, you are likely to be reading primary research. Most journal articles are considered primary research sources as they are written by the person that conducted the investigation.

In contrast, when you read about the results of a research study in a newspaper, magazine or website, you are likely reading a secondary source. These avenues are secondary sources because they rely on the interpretation of a second writer to share the results of an earlier published study.

The distinction between primary and secondary sources is not always clear-cut. As explained by the Yale University Library website:

A primary source is firsthand testimony or direct evidence concerning a topic under investigation. The nature and value of a source cannot be determined without reference to the topic and questions it is meant to answer. The same document, or other piece of evidence, may be a primary source in one investigation and secondary in another. The search for primary sources does not, therefore, automatically include or exclude any category of records or documents.

In the social sciences, primary research is given priority over secondary sources. Whenever possible, you should read the original article in which a theory, finding or experiment is published.

Finding Social Science Literature

In the "good old days" all literature could be found in the library. By searching stacks of dusty shelves, you could find books and hard-copy journals targeting a range of relevant topics. The good part about these old searches was that one could assume most of the information available in the library was a valuable source. The bad part was that the amount of information available was limited and you had to be physically present in the library in order to gain access to information.

As you know, the Internet has changed the way that we find social science literature. No longer do we have to step foot in the library in order to gain access to the vast amount of information available on a given topic. The good news is that we know have easy access to a virtually endless supply of information; the bad news is that the vastness of the information available mandates that we evaluate all information to determine its worth and value.

For the purposes of this course, we are going to distinguish between two types of online literature: library and World Wide Web (WWW). When you access the Park University online library, you are virtually stepping foot into a real library. As such, the search engines designed to help you find social science literature (i.e., EbscoHost) are geared to point you toward academic sources (assuming that you use the correct search limiters). In contrast, general WWW search engines (i.e.,,,, etc.) are designed to find any publicly available website that matches the search terms. While WWW literature is convenient and quick, there are no regulations that allow you to assume that findings are valuable. As such, you must be extremely cautious when using literature that you find in a WWW search. To become a more effective consumer of online information, complete the Purdue University interactive tutorial on Evaluating Online Sources.

For more information on evaluating Internet sources, see:

Critical Analysis of Social Science Literature

As we have discussed, writing in the social sciences is based upon evidence. This evidence comes primarily in the form of empirical journal articles. While empirical journals serve as the cornerstone of social science literature, it is important to remember that all writing - even scientific journals - must be read and interpreted carefully. Despite attempts to be objective and unbiased in our writing, all writing targets a particular audience with a particular goal in mind. This goal lends itself to a level of bias that we must be aware of. For a closer look at this issue, read the following excerpt from Emily Donnelli, Assistant Professor of Psychology at Park University:

It is interesting that, in much of the literature on how to critically evaluate sources, there is always a category devoted to determining the "objectivity" of a source.  Conventional wisdom says that the more objective and unbiased the source, the more credible. 

If we consider, however, that all writing is done towards some persuasive end (to inform, to move, to challenge, to educate, to inspire), we realize that objectivity is an unrealistic and undesirable goal.  Not only do medical researchers may have the goal of uncovering information to help in conquering a particular disease; literary researchers have the goal of interpreting a literary work to give readers more insights; and sociologists have the goal of clarifying the actions of human beings, they all pursue these goals with specific ideas in mind.

Objectivity, in terms of research, can be better understood as the degree to which the writer/researcher's bias is on display, the extent to which the writer/researcher has acknowledged multiple sides, including his own, to reach a fair examination of the issue. 

When approaching sources, then, we must determine what the writer/researcher's perspective is--where that piece of research fits in the ongoing conversation.  We must also take on the spirit of objectivity ourselves as researchers in order to remain open and pliable when in the beginning stages of our writing.

Evaluating Social Science Literature

When evaluating social science literature, it is important to make sure that your information sources are good ones. Use the following guidelines to help assess the quality of your information:

Is the Source Up-to-Date?

Information relating to new and rapidly growing fields may become out of date in a matter of months. And sometimes the most recent information is not always the most reliable, not having stood the test of time or close scrutiny.

Is the Printed Source Dependable?

Assess the publication's reputation, the document's thoroughness, and, especially, the author's reputation. You must use sources that will be commonly recognized by your audience as credible.

Is the Electronic Source Reliable?

While most printed journal articles must be accepted by a committee of expert referees and an editorial board, most material on the Internet is not subject to any sort of screening process.

Is the Information Overly Biased (and not acknowledging it)?

Research is often funded by private companies or special-interest groups, which usually have their own agendas. Know who sponsored the study before trusting the findings.

How Does This Source Measure Up to Others?

To help ensure an unbiased view, seek a consensus among a variety of sources.

Is the Presentation of Evidence Balanced and Reasonable?

Evidence can be misrepresented in a number of ways--could you legitimately use any of the following (or could they be used on you) to place doubt in the readers' minds about a source?

  • Overstatement of claims
  • Omission of vital facts
  • Deceptive framing of the facts
  • Unverified facts

What Level of Certainty is Warranted?

  • The ultimate truth-the conclusive answer; 
  • The probable answer; or 
  • The inconclusive answer  

Most scientific, technical, and social controversies are open-ended, and it is unlikely that a set of "facts" will ever be uncovered that will settle such controversies.

Are the Underlying Assumptions Sound?                

Some assumptions-notions we take for granted, claims we accept without proof-of the research process include: a sample group accurately represents a larger group, survey respondents accurately recall certain facts, that humans and mice share enough genetic similarities for meaningful generalizations of research results. For a particular study to be valid, its underlying assumptions must be correct.

To What Extent Has Bias Influenced the Interpretation?

We frequently fail to recognize our biases until we examine our own value systems. Bias often comes in the form of assumptions we've inherited from our backgrounds or assumptions we've accepted but never analyzed. Usually outsiders-those not from our own cultural, economic, or social background-see our biases more clearly than we do.

Are Other Interpretations Possible?

Our research often leads us to a conclusion that seems clear and obvious to us, but may not appear so for others. Seeing beyond our own opinion is difficult. Would others look at your findings and agree with your conclusions? You might ask others to play devil's advocate to help make sure you've examining all reasonable interpretations. 

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