The Literature Review/Mediagraphy

Book Shelf Project 2, via Striatic on Flickr 


Whether you aspire to complete a research paper or thesis, a research-based production project, or even a grant proposal for a creative work, it’s important that you be able to demonstrate your familiarity with existing work in your field. The literature review is one common means of demonstrating this familiarity.

Different folks have different ways of explaining what, precisely, a lit review does:

  • According to educational psychologist John Creswell, author of numerous research design texts, the literature review does several things: (1) “It shares with the reader the results of other [projects] that are closely related to [yours]”; (2) “It relates [your projec]
    to the larger ongoing dialogue in the literature about a topic, filling in gaps and extending prior [studies/projects]”; and (3) “it provides a framework for establishing the importance of [your work] as well as a benchmark for comparing the results of [your work] with [others]” (Creswell 29-30).
  • Dena Taylor and Margaret Procter (2008), of the University of Toronto, argue that a literature review allows you to demonstrate your “information seeking” ability (we might prefer to say “resource seeking” or “knowledge gathering”) – your efficiency in reviewing a wide body of work, and your discernment in selecting the most useful sources – and it allows you to demonstrate your “critical appraisal.”
    • Daniel Chandler (2004) reminds us that the term “critical” does not necessarily imply that “you should focus on criticizing the work of established researchers”; it’s not all about picking apart someone’s argument. “It is primarily meant to indicate that: the review should not be merely a descriptive list…[and tha]
      you are capable of thinking critically and with insight of issues raised by previous research.” As Grey and Malins explain, the view “allows you to acknowledge…different contributions, but also encourages you to state your responses to them – both positive and negative” (p. 37).
  • USCS’s libraries remind us of a few additional purposes the lit review serves: it “Identif[ies] new ways to interpret, and shed light on any gaps in, previous research”; “identif[ies] areas of prior scholarship to prevent duplication of effort; and “point[s] the way forward for future research.”

While all of these functions do serve an external purpose — i.e., allowing you to demonstrate to professors, thesis committee members, peer reviewers, conference and festival selection committee members, potential funders, and other “gatekeepers” of your work that you “know your stuff” — lit reviews also serve internal, selfish purposes: namely, they allow you to better understand the context within which you’re working. They allow you to know what’s already out there, so you can build on top of it. They save you the frustration of duplicating others’ efforts and allow you to learn from others’ mistakes. And, as Aron Hsiao explains, “In writing a sound literature review about Topic X, you either demonstrate [to others and yourself] that you are or have become (in the process of writing it) an authority of some sort on Topic X.”

Sociologist Howard Becker offers one caveat: in familiarizing yourself with the work that already exists in your area(s) of interest, you want to avoid “paying [so] much attention to it” that it “deform[s] the argument you want to make.” You need to “use the literature; don’t let it use you” (146, 149).


Let’s start with what it isn’t. The literature review is not simply a laundry list of research projects or a series of abstracts: “Author X said this, then Y said this, then Z said this….” Taylor and Proctor say, “It’s usually a bad sign to see every paragraph beginning with the name of a researcher,” as if you’re simply running through a list of all the texts you’ve consulted.” The lit review is thus not simply a review — a rehashing, as its name might imply; instead, it’s a “critical appraisal” of the existing work.

The literature review is also not an opportunity for you to show your reader just how much research you’ve done by including everything you’ve discovered. You’ll need to take a selectively comprehensive and critical view of the work in your field. Yes, “selectively comprehensive” may seem like an oxymoron; what I hope to convey is the importance of delimiting the area you’re researching, and digging deep within that well-defined area.

Finally, a lit review isn’t a research paper. A research paper is meant to advance an argument. A lit review doesn’t really have an argument, although a lit review might appear in a research paper, where it serves to “set the stage” for the author to advance his or her argument.

Okay, now that we know what it isn’t, let’s consider what it is. A literature review is a document in which one summarizes and synthesizes the existing work in a field, and provides a critical assessment of that existing work. The review has a logical organization and effectively presents a summary/synthesis of the “state of the work in the field”; it is this context that ultimately, ideally, provides a justification for the work you plan to undertake.

Thus, although lit reviews don’t advance arguments, they can be said to have agendas: They allow you to identify patterns in existing research and draw conclusions. You might also identify the “holes,” the omissions in the literature or mediagraphy or shortcomings in previous research or production, that your work promises to fill.

(N.B. Although the literature review commonly serves to “set up,” to provide a foundation for, your own work, it’s important to note that not all lit reviews serve this purpose. The literature review is also a “genre” of academic writing that one might publish independently, simply to make readers aware of the state of the research on a particular topic or in a particular field. You can find many examples of this writing below.)


You can’t review the literature until you familiarize yourself with it, of course. So the first step is (1) defining a topic*, then (2) consulting the existing academic research on that topic. As Aron notes: “For some, [the topic] will be an academic topic like ‘the portrayal of race in American film drama, 1990-2000,’ while for others it will be a practical topic organized around a project goal, like ‘making a documentary about autistic kids and new media. In either case, there will be keywords (American film drama, race, new media, autism, documentary-making)'” to aid your search. Gray and Malins (2004) offer some valuable advice:

In searching for information, be prepared to be simultaneously depressed and excited – depressed because you cannot find anything to match your needs exactly, and excited because this means that your line of inquiry could be unusual or even unique. Be prepared to step out of both your subject area…and even your discipline (p. 43).

Grey and Malins — who argue that even artists need to know how to construct reviews of the fields in which they’re working (they call them “contextual reviews”) — say that, as you’re gathering the resources that will eventually comprise your review, you need to find a balance between breadth and depth. “Initially it is very important to cast the net of contextual enquiry very wide and develop an overview and understanding of the field. This is the mapping stage and can help in deciding what comes within the scope of the research and…what lies outside” (p. 37; more about mapping below.)

“As you work through the results of your search,” Aron says, “pay attention to titles or works that come up again and again in search results. Glance through bibliographies and references in the works that you collect, and make a note of the works that come up in these repeatedly as well.” The oft-cited works can be said to have been vetted and deemed important by experts in the field, and they should ultimately be included in your review. There might also be resources that pertain directly to your area of research, but haven’t (yet) achieved “canonical” status or proven their “impact”; because of their direct relevance to your project, these resources are worth including, too.

If you’ve been abstracting resources as you’ve encountered them, will greatly simplify your work in ultimately constructing the review.

Before you begin organizing and writing the review, Creswell (2003) promotes the creation of a “literature map”: “a visual summary of the research that has been conducted by others” in your area of research (p. 39).

via Krista Siniscarso
via Krista Siniscarso 
via cmaps
via cmaps 

This visual representation can take many forms: “One is a hierarchical structure, with a top-down presentation of the literature ending at the bottom with a proposed study that will extend the literature” (p. 39). You could map your sources chronologically, as the development of an idea, with your intervention positioned as the next step in that idea’s evolution. You could identify thematic clusters. “Another [model] might be similar to a flowchart in which the reader understands the literature unfolding from left to right, with the studies furthest to the right advancing a proposed study that adds to the literature”; this format isn’t necessarily organized chronologically, but it does perhaps narrow progressively in thematic focus, so that, at the end, it effectively makes the case for the work you propose to do (ibid.). You might also try a Venn diagram, “with each circle representing a body of literature and the intersection of the circles indicating the place at which future research is needed” (ibid.). Or you could try a chart, “arranged to demonstrate comparison and contrast perhaps using a common set of criteria as an ‘anchor'” (p. 49). “By playing with the references – organizing them in different ways – you could end up with several maps to help you decide how to structure your review” (p. 53).

The holes in our maps can tell us a lot, too.

Even after we mark the page, there are blanks beyond the borders of what we create, and blanks within what we create. Maps are defined by what they include but are often more revealing in what they exclude (Turchi, 2004, p. 29).

Fiction writer Peter Turchi helps us to look differently at these “holes” in the map of your terrain, the omissions in the literature, the gaps in the evolution of your practice. There are many ways to interpret these holes — so we need to be careful not to immediately assume that our job is to fill them. “Blanks can represent what is known, but deemed unimportant in a particular context, for a particular map” (p. 33). You might be the first to regard a subject worthy of investigation; you should ask yourself why that’s the case. “Ignorance is another sort of blank” (p. 34); it could be that nobody’s studied a particular issue before because the phenomenon you’re proposing to study is relatively new — or because the existing data and research instruments had been, until now, insufficient. Or, maybe you simply haven’t done enough research yet — and what currently appears to be an understudied area actually has a rich history of research; Malins and Grey note that it is common in literature reviews to state “that there is a ‘lack of research’ without providing sufficient evidence to justify that statement” (p. 43). I see this often.

Yet blanks can be opportunities: “a fuller understanding of what we don’t know is itself new knowledge, and redefines what we know. Omissions, intended or unintended, provoke the imagination” (p. 47). You work in the blanks.

EcoLiteracy Literature Review “Tube Map” via ecolabs on Flickr:


As Aron says, “To begin to move from annotated bibliography to literature review, [we need to] figure out the proper, most logical order for these works. This is an analytical task that you have to navigate on your own, using your own intuition and judgment.” If our “mapping” metaphor works for you, you might think about translating your visual literature map to a written outline that will eventually be fleshed out into your literature review. The most common means of structuring a literature review are thematic, chronological, or methodological– but different projects might call for different formats. Perhaps you can try out various ways of structuring your “literature map” to see which seems most consistent with the way you plan to structure your research. Eventually, you should decide upon one scheme that will structure how you write up the review.

“John Nash Visits My Apartment” via Maximolly on Flickr:

You might even try this (look right).

The structure you ultimately choose, Taylor and Procter say, should parallel the structure of the work you plan to conduct (e.g., why review the literature chronologically if your work will not have a historical dimension?).

The review should synthesize what is known and not known, what has been done and has not been done, within your delimited area of work; it should identify controversies in the field and acknowledge even work that you might find unconvincing or problematic, but which has proven influential; and it should identify areas where we need further work. I would add another key function: it could acknowledge existing work that has lain the theoretical or methodological foundations for your work, even if it’s not pertinent to your specific subject.

When writing your literature review, please keep these caveats (some of which are drawn from Boston College libraries) in mind:

  • Use direct quotations judiciously.
  • Subheads are a good idea; they help to identify what you regard as the key themes in your proposed project and track their logical unfolding.
  • Be sure to provide effective transitions between each section, where you preview and summarize the material and explain how each section connects to the next. Aron provides an example: “While Jeffers suggests that autistic children will never engage with new media in the same way that non-autistic children do, in the article XYZ and ABC, Heintz and Mills present research showing precisely the opposite…”
  • Provide an introduction: “name your topic, describe in brief your research experience (where you looked, how difficult or easy it was to find resources, how many you found, why you selected the ones that you did), and introduce the logical order of the [review] (you decided to present them chronologically, or in three categories, A, B, and C, etc.) so that readers know what to expect.” (Hsiao)
  • Provide a conclusion. As Aron recommends, “Introduce your own voice here. Critique the works that you found and the state of the literature in general (“Scholars have unjustifiably ignored this topic,” or “All existing work seems biased toward,” or “While there are many articles, no-one has yet made a film…,” and so on). Finish in a way that justifies your research and summarizes the knowledge you’ve presented.”


You can find sample literature reviews in the introductions or first chapters of many theses, dissertations and books. Many academic articles contain abbreviated literature reviews in their first or second subheaded sections. There are plenty of examples in online publications, like this one.

You can also search in the library’s electronic databases for “literature review” + [area of study] to find published, standalone literature review on particular topics. Here are just a few examples [Note that these these articles reside inside the library’s electronic databases, behind a password-protected wall. If you want to access these articles, or search for others that are more directly related to your own particular areas of interest, you can log into the libraries databases and search for yourself!]:


A graduate-level research project or research-based production or creative project requires extended review of the work in your specific research area, and in the broader field of media studies. It’s a good idea to start surveying the field early in the program — and to start piecing together the resources you find into a “living document” – a first-draft attempt to find patterns, identify major debates, assess methodologies, and plot potential openings for your eventual contribution. Then, over the next several semesters, your coursework and outside-of-class readings and viewings and listenings should all make their way into your “resource bank.” If, ultimately, you choose to complete a cumulative project – a thesis, or an independent study or production – in Media Studies, you can draw on this bank to revise and expand the literature review you drafted early in the program. Grey and Malins agree that it is important to “keep updating the information with new references as the field around you develops,” and as you discover more. “As your work progresses the map might expand, shrink, or change shape as relevant new references are identified and reviewed, and some earlier references become less important” (p. 36).


Common Problem: No Literature

Many students find that they “can’t find anything on” their topic of choice—i.e. they’ve typed “autism and new media and documentary” into Google Scholar and found only two or three works that seem to be “on point.” This is not a problem; this is a discovery — the discovery that you as a person interested in this topic have a bright future ahead of you because nobody else seems to have focused on this yet. You may have found a space for yourself to be a trailblazer with your research.

For our literature review, you solve this problem by breaking keywords down into smaller groupings. Instead of “autism and new media,” search for “autism and documentary,” “autism and new media,” and “new media and documentary.” If that still returns too little, search for “autism,” “new media,” and “documentary” and go through these much longer lists. If you still aren’t finding enough, search for allied topics (for example, if you have chosen “DSLR film techniques in guerrilla cinema” you may have to use “digital video” and “street photography” as similar topics to flesh out your list).

Yes, as you branch out this way, the works that you find will be less and less “directly related” to your nexus of keywords. This is an opportunity for you to insert your own analysis (read about and abstract digital film and mentally extrapolate to DSLR film based on the similarities) and then to comment on this in your introduction and conclusion (that there is a lack of literature on DSLR film; that you have extrapolated about similarities; that you may be missing something and additional work needs to be done).

Common Problem: Too Much Literature

The other most common problem is the discovery that there is far too much literature available to you to read or make sense of; you feel overwhelmed. There are two ways to approach this problem:

  1. Narrow your topic. Get more specific, introduce more keywords. Ask yourself why you are interested in this topic. Not why in general, but why in relation to your own particular biography, other interests, etc. Use these answers as further keywords. Or, continue to plough through the general list of sources until you find more specific subtopics that interest you, then focus on those.
  2. Write a broadly-based literature review. Even if your topic is simply “film,” you can do the legwork of trying to identify the 15-20 most critical, most classic academic works on “film” in your estimation, based on your judgment and expertise and research. Then, abstract these. Use your introduction and conclusion to explain your choices of these works, to explain that there are many, many more for such a huge area, and to name the particular point of view, perspective, or biases that you bring to bear in your selection. [This wouldn’t fly in the “real world” — but it is an acceptable solution within the context of UMS.]

Common Problem: Trouble Defending your Thesis Statement or Hypothesis In This Format

You needn’t have a strong thesis statement or hypothesis in a literature review. If in doubt, take it out. You are surveying the literature in a topic area and summarizing what you found; no need to make an argument or prove a point, particularly if you are struggling to do so.

Common Problem: It’s Too Positive/Too Negative

If you feel as though all you’re doing is cheerleading or complaining about the works that you found, you’re probably writing criticism instead of abstracting the works in the body of your paper. [My Addendum to Aron’s List:] Remember that “critical appraisal” does not imply that “you should focus on criticizing the work of established researchers”; it’s not all about picking apart someone’s argument (Chandler). “It is primarily meant to indicate that: the review should not be merely a descriptive list…[and tha]
you are capable of thinking critically and with insight of issues raised by previous research.”

Common Problem: Struggling to Make Sense of it All / Getting Lost in Writing

If you’re spending lots of time writing page after page of prose and trying to make it go where you want it to go or struggling to understand “how it all comes together,” you’re probably trying to write an exegetical or critical paper (as you would a term paper for a class) rather than a literature review. Stick to the steps above and remember that the literature review process is a research tool; the actual literature review that you submit is a side effect that demonstrates that you went through the process and that documents your research process; it’s not a “product” that you are aiming to perfect, especially at this level.

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