Friday, October 14, 2011

How to Write an Effective Literature Review: Distinguishing between theoretical and contextual literature

Literature reviews of articles, books, theses, and dissertations often can take an enormous amount of time to complete. One way to complete a literature review more quickly is to develop reading strategies that help you move forward.

Reading (30th/52)

Reading strategies can be just as important as writing strategies.

In Writing Your Journal Article in Twelve Weeks: A Guide to Academic Publishing Success, Wendy Belcher argues that it is just as important to develop effective reading strategies as it is to develop effective writing strategies, because it is impossible to read every published work in your area of research. One of the distinctions Belcher makes is between contextual or background literature and theoretical literature. I have found it very useful to make a similar distinction when reading for and writing a literature review.

Conceptual vs. theoretical literature

When writing a literature review, it is crucial to distinguish between 1) theoretical literature: scholarly writing that helps you to build and sharpen your conceptual focus; and 2) contextual or related literature: articles and books that are closely related to your area or subject of research. Making this distinction is important because you will have to read closely every work that forms part of your core theoretical framework, but can often do a quicker read of those articles that are part of your background literature.

For example, I recently wrote an article on the transnational ties of deportees in Jamaica. The literature on transnationalism is expansive. I thus had to choose a few key theorists in the field and use their works to define transnationalism. There was no way I could read everything that had been written: a Google Scholar search turned up 31,700 results for transnationalism. Instead, I chose: 1) highly cited and foundational works in the field and 2) recent articles and books on transnationalism. I used these sources to develop my own conceptual framework. In all, I used about a dozen sources to form the basis of my conceptual framework. Once I chose the key sources on transnationalism, I had to read those closely and make sure that my understanding of the concept was clear and in line with the most prevalent and recent thinking on the topic.

The article, however, has many more citations than those select few sources that make up the conceptual framework. The difference is that I did not have to read and ponder these background sources as closely. This background literature situates my arguments and findings in the field and consisted of works that deal with:

  • Deportation: Other academic studies of people who have been deported as well as government reports on the numbers of people deported.
  • Jamaican migration: Other academic studies of Jamaican migrants.
  • Jamaica: Books and articles on Jamaica to allow me to talk about the contemporary situation in Jamaica.
  • Other studies of transnationalism: In addition to reading about transnationalism to build my theoretical framework, I read other studies so that I could compare how Jamaican deportees experience transnationalism with other transnational actors.
  • Methods: I cited a couple of articles that use similar methodologies.
  • Secondary conceptual frameworks: Transnationalism is the primary theoretical framework, but, while writing, I decided to also talk about gender and stigma, and thus cite works that deal with those concepts.

In all, I skimmed and read scores of articles to write this one article. However, I did not closely read every single article or book that I came across. Instead, similar to the process I described in last week’s post, I searched the literature, took notes, and develop a schematic framework for the literature review.

It was only when I was developing the conceptual framework – transnationalism – that I had to read the articles closely and engage with the literature on a deep level. I also had to take time to think about transnationalism and allow the concepts to simmer in the back of my brain. Distinguishing between background literature and conceptual literature can be useful as it will help you to figure out what articles and books you need to read closely and think about deeply and which ones you can skim or read more quickly.

For me, writing this is a helpful reminder, as I am currently writing a new article about citizenship. A search on “citizenship” in Google Scholar turns up 817,000 sources. Of courses, I never will be able to read all of those. Again, I have to decide what the core literature is and draw from that to come up with my own working definition of citizenship to make my own conceptual framework.


  1. Incredibly helpful, thank you very much for posting this. Just sitting down to write my literature review for my PhD now and (surprise, surprise!) finding it extremely difficult to start. Think I've narrowed it down to 20 pieces of literature. Can now divide them into theoretical and conceptual!

  2. Hi Tanya,

    I am in a masters program and I have acquired 15 annotated bibliographies. However my professor keep sending my paperback stating...Where's the theory?

    I am writing about sleep disorders in teens- I not sure how get the out of this

    1. A theory would be, for example, the argument that teenagers are more likely to have sleep disorders when they consume alcohol. I suspect your prof wants you to group different theories together and explain how they deal with one another. For example, one group of scholars might argue that working-class teens are more likely to have sleep disorders, whereas another group might argue that class is not the determining issue, but urban versus rural. I am, of course, making these theories up, but I hope it resonates with you.

  3. Hi Tanya....thank you so much for this. indeed very helpful. I was wandering how to write a literature review of the thesis that is (art) practice based? what is the best way to handle this?

    1. My only suggestion is to look for other models in your discipline to see how it's done.