What is a Critical Literature Review: Describing a Literature Review for Graduate Students

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Let me begin by trying to define and describe a literature review for you. Etymologically speaking, literature is anything that is written. Therefore, a literature review is literally—pun intended—an exhaustive evaluation or appraisal of a compilation of texts that have already been published on a particular topic or area.

You are not expected to add anything novel or innovative in a literature review. You’re required to merely recapitulate and amalgamate the work other scholars have done and published in your specific area of research.

So what is a critical literature review? In a critical literature review, you have the opportunity to establish your expertise in your field, to exhibit your critical thinking skills and to showcase your ability to re-interpret the existing material. You could do this by organizing published texts thematically and include the conflicting opinions and debates pertinent to your area.

In a critical review, you can examine the existing material in terms of issues that are connected to your research and whether the solutions offered by other scholars to date are satisfactory. You can question the theoretical grounding of the material that has been published in your field, reveal trends and proffer your own comparative analyses about what they mean to the future study of your subject in the light of your research.

When you write a research paper or dissertation, you are expected to not only be original but also to achieve something beyond what has already been accomplished. There would be no academic merit in writing a document with a thesis that has already been expressed before by some other researcher.

Your literature review or critical literature review should really be the first step towards writing that original paper or dissertation because it performs some very important functions:

First, before actually writing it, you have to search and read up on all the published material in your field. Thus, you are brought up to date with the research that is currently being done in your area.

Second, In the process of writing it you have to summarize and synthesize all the material that is relevant to your research. This will force you to ensure that your research stays on the cutting-edge and is what it is supposed to be—original.

Third, if you write a critical literature review, it will create the backdrop for your research by providing your readers with a dialectic framework within which to examine the arguments or conclusions that you make in your research paper or dissertation.

Fourth, since you cannot read and assimilate every piece of research written and published in your broader subject, a critical literature review will force you to narrow the focus of your paper or dissertation to manageable levels.

Finally, the literature review will also provide the bulwark that supports your research. It tells your readers that your work is not a maverick whim; that it is part of an existent and ongoing field of study and that it will add new material to a validated body of information. How well you compile the literature review will also establish your credentials as a serious scholar.

Now that I’ve described a literature review for you and now that you know what a critical literature review is, you are ready to take the first step towards writing your research paper or dissertation. Good luck.

References and Resources:

https://www.gse.harvard.edu/library/services/research_instruction/litreviewguides530.html (has links to some wonderful resources on writing literature reviews and also links to sample critical literature reviews)

www.staffs.ac.uk/schools/business/ramsay/Reasoning/critreview.doc (will give you more on critical literature review techniques)

https://www.writing.utoronto.ca/advice/specific-types-of-writing/literature-review (this article is useful for the practical tips and the list of questions it suggests that you ask yourself when you are writing a critical literature review)

https://www.scribd.com/doc/267683/Writing-Critical-Literature-Review (a PowerPoint presentation on Scribd that gives shorthand pointers you may find useful)