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Guidelines for the Critical Literature Review

When you are embarking on a research project, it is important to acquire a good sense of the existing work on the topic and arrive at your own view on the state of the literature: what there is, what is missing, and what could be improved upon. The main objective of this exercise is to help you gain the skills involved in making such critical surveys of the literature.

You should aim to attain a well-balanced and comprehensive view of the most important literature on a chosen topic. It is not required that you engage in a very long discussion of any particular source, or develop a sustained argument of your own. However, your review should be critical in the sense that it gives your own view on the quality and importance of the work that exists; getting a first-class mark will require that you demonstrate sufficient critical insight, as well as an excellent command of the literature.

Key steps in composing a Critical Literature Review:

  1. Topic identification
    Given the limited length of the piece (3,000–5,000 words), you should take care to choose a sufficiently focused topic. Start with an area of interest, and do some exploratory reading in order to narrow it down; at this stage you can also consult potential supervisors for preliminary advice. It is helpful to address a well-formed question, rather than a whole subject area.
  2. Literature search
    Once you have found a topic, make a systematic search of the literature in order to discover existing works on the topic. Use relevant databases, library catalogues, and reference works for this purpose.
  3. Selection of literature to discuss
    Most likely you will find a great number of sources on your topic. By a cursory examination of the sources, determine which ones promise to be the most important and interesting for you to discuss. Use abstracts and key words for this purpose; skim-read what you can get hold of.
  4. In-depth study and critical discourse
    Having selected your main 'targets', the crucial step is to study the targeted works closely and arrive at a critical view of them. Even though you are not required to produce truly original results or make a sustained argument of your own in this exercise, you should arrive at an independent judgement about the quality of the literature that you are examining, based on a thorough understanding of its content. If there is an ongoing debate in the literature, position yourself clearly in that debate.
  5. Composition
    The essay you submit should contain both an accurate and sympathetic exposition of the literature, and a critical assessment of its current state. In the critical part of the essay you should keep in mind the question of what could be contributed by new research on the topic (which may possibly be undertaken by yourself later): where are the gaps or weak points in the existing literature, and how might they be remedied?

The Literature Review can serve as useful preparation for your Dissertation, although it is not required that it should be on the same topic. In any case, this exercise is intended to give you a sense of the scale and type of background research that is appropriate for a research paper of a moderate length.

Some examples of good work from previous years are available from the Department. Consult the Part III Manager.