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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Sociology 480: Methods of Field Research: Qualitative Methods: Lit Review Basics

Overview of a Literature Search

A literature review is a survey of current (you determine time frame) literature relating to a particular issue, problem, theory, etc. The review involves a comprehensive search of all of the known/findable scholarly literature related to the issue or topic. The written review provides a summary of this literature and can be a publication in its own right, or may be part of a larger academic research publication.

  • Identify the problem and formulate the research question
  • Brainstorm search terms and word combinations for each concept in your research question.
  • Choose two databases to start with a preliminary search (suggestion: one general article database and one subject-specific database). Try a  word combination for each of your concepts in each database in order to:
    • find out if the same or similar research has already been published
    • broaden or refine the scope of the problem
    • bring to light new issues or questions related to the topic
    • provide models or frameworks that can inform your research
    • identify experts or scholars in the field
    • provide background or context for your research
  • Refine the topic, and your search term word combination strategy

  • Conduct a comprehensive review of the literature using multiple databases, library catalog and other appropriate resources.

  • Review/evaluate/analyze results

    • Glance at the title; if you think the publication may be relevant look at the abstract.
    • If the abstract indicates that the article will be important, go to the full text and skim the introduction, methods and results. (If you find a structured abstract this process will be much easier.)
    • Save citations/full text for all potentially important literature.

Sources of Scholarly Research

Sources of Scholarly Research:

  • Journal Articles: Publishing original research in a scholarly journal is frequently the ultimate goal of the researcher, and usually required as part of  the tenure process for academic faculty. Therefore, journals are a major source of information about past research on a given topic, and a literature review should usually begin with a search in relevant article databases. Some journals also contain book reviews, or reviews of recent research trends in the field. The Journal Articles sub-page contains more details about the types of journals and article databases that are recommended for sociology research.
  • Conference Proceedings: Researchers often present their research at a professional organization's or institution's conference, and some conference proceedings (including abstracts of presentations and papers related to the research) are published in print or online. Conference papers (both published and unpublished) may be cited in other scholarly research.
  • Dissertations and Theses: Produced by graduate students as a requirement for their degree, and generally contain original research as well as extensive literature reviews and bibliographies. Universities generally keep at least one copy of all of their students' dissertations at their library, and many are now accessible online.
  • Books: Print and e-books continue to be a valuable resource. Some may be methodological or theoretical (handbooks on research methods, textbooks), others may be useful reference sources (encyclopedias, dictionaries, directories), and some may have original research (ie. case studies). Books with original research or scholarly discourse will often have a main title theme, with each chapter contributed by different scholars and representing their specific viewpoint and/or research related to the general theme.
  • Data/Statistics: Research data collected by scholars, agencies and institutions is often available in online data repositories. Often you can download and analyze their data using statistical software, or by using data analysis tools provided by the repository. Many repositories also provide citations to related publications which have used a certain data set. Statistics (data which have already been analyzed) are also frequently available through databases.

Components of research articles

Research articles will generally have some version of the following headings, however you may not see all of these and you may see some that are not listed.

  • Title
  • Abstract – helps to determine relevance of article to the reader’s interests
  • Introduction/literature review
  • Purpose of the study/hypothesis/problem statement
  • Methodology/procedures/research design
  • Major findings/results/analysis/discussion
  • Summary/conclusion/ideas for future studies/implications
  • Works cited/references/acknowledgements
  • Notes
  • Appendices
  • Tables, charts, figures, statistical data (throughout the article)