How to... carry out a literature review for a dissertation or research paper

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By Margaret Adolphus


The purpose of the literature review

All literature reviews should be more than a mere description of the current state of knowledge of an area, and should critically evaluate the theoretical positions and research studies, drawing attention to major debates. This is particularly true for a research dissertation or paper, which should go one step further by using the review to situate the author's own contribution to knowledge.

The literature review has been described as a "report of primary scholarship" (Cooper, 1988) and "an interpretation and synthesis of published work" (Merriam, 1988, quoted by Murray, 2002). The two key words here are scholarship and synthesis: a literature review relates particular research to the a wider field.

There are two main purposes of a literature review:

  1. To show awareness of the present state of knowledge of a particular field. Not just who has written what, but the main empirical research, theoretical positions, controversies, and breakthroughs as well as links with other related areas of knowledge.
  2. To provide a foundation for the author's research. The process of reviewing the literature should provide, according to Steane (2004: p. 124), a rationale for the choice of problem to be investigated and the methodology selected. It should help the researcher define a hypothesis or a research question, and show how answering the question will contribute to the body of knowledge. Analysis of the literature can also help provide a particular theoretical lens, support the argument, or identify gaps.


In their article, "Accounting change in central government", Gomes et al. justify their study of Portuguese public sector accounting on the basis that European public sector accounting is less explored than that in the private sector, and particularly little is known about Portuguese double-entry bookkeeping.

Georgakopoulos and Thomson (2008) use the first four paragraphs of the article, "Social reporting, engagements, controversies and conflict in an arena context" to explain their influences, approach (grounded theory and the arena concept) and the debates that informed their research design.

In "The normative imperatives of business and marketing strategy: grounding strategy in resource-advantage theory", Hunt and Derozier (2004) summarize the various theories of optimizing strategic performance:

"… one school stresses the importance of industry factors (Montgomery and Porter, 1991; Porter, 1980, 1985), while others stress firm-specific competences (Day and Nedungadi, 1994; Hamel and Prahalad, 1994a,b; Prahalad and Hamel, 1990; Sanchez et al., 1996) and inimitable resources (Barney, 1991; Grant, 1991; Wernerfelt, 1984). Some schools urge firms to focus on developing their dynamic capabilities (Teece and Pisano, 1994) and higher-order learning processes (Dickson, 1996; Senge, 1990; Sinkula et al., 1997), while others emphasize the value-creating potential of networks of relationships (Berry and Parasuraman, 1991; Grönroos, 1996; Gummesson, 1994; Morgan and Hunt, 1994; Sheth and Parvatiyar, 1995a,b; Varadarajan and Cunningham, 1995; Weitz and Jap, 1995; Wilson, 1995). Some schools advocate a market orientation (MO) (Jaworski and Kohli, 1993; Slater and Narver, 1994; Webster, 1992, 1994), while others focus on 'first mover' innovations (Kerin et al., 1992; Lieberman and Montgomery, 1998) and brand equity (Aaker, 1991; Keller, 1993)".