28 August 2018

Literature reviews

There is a lot already written about ‘doing’ a literature review. So, why this note? Mainly, I did it to remind myself about the types of literature reviews and the processes by which they can be undertaken.

Unless otherwise noted, this is mainly a summary from Huff’s excellent book, Designing research for publication (2009).

First, literature reviews are not about showing (all that) you know. Rather, their purpose is to ensure the reader knows what they need to know to make sense of the research.

There are four main types of literature review: survey, critical, systematic/synthetic, and supportive.

The survey literature review

The survey approach is most useful as one seeks to get an initial handle on a new area of research. As questions, the purpose of this type of review is:

  • What is the nature of the field within which my interests lie?
  • What are the key issues and current trends?
  • What subjects are particularly interesting to me?

The critical literature review

The critical approach is a “much more focused set of articles and books” and identifies the current arguments. From this review the “topic for your contribution emerges, and concepts that may be used to shape that contribution are gathered” (my emphasis). As questions, the purpose of this type of review is:

  • Who is writing about the subject that interests me?
  • What standards do they establish?
  • What are the most compelling arguments they make?
  • Where might I make a contribution?
  • What vocabulary should I use?

The systematic literature review

Having identified ones research question, the systematic review “searches multiple fields of inquiry for reputable work that addresses your question. The synthesis of data from this search is the ideal starting point for empirical work or further conceptual development”. As questions, the purpose of this type of review is:

  • What is already known in the area of intended contribution from qualitative and quantitative investigations across areas of inquiry?

The Supportive literature review

“Once the [research] project is underway … small forays into the literature”, supportive reviews will be undertaken to address specific questions arising from the research, or to address wider concerns. As questions, the purpose of this type of review is:

  • How can the literature resolve specific problems or support news that occur as I carry out my research


Huff, A. S. (2009). Designing research for publication. Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE Publications.