Literature Review

August 29, 2019
a stack of books

A literature review explains concepts that relate to your research project. As a design researcher, your job is to select sources (news stories, books, journal articles, movies, etc.) that help you build a relevant research project. These sources help you determine what methods you should implement to get the data you need to answer your research question. The content in your literature review is a foundation for the rest of your project. It demonstrates you have searched the universe to learn as much as you can about your topic and that you have built your project on evidence.

Literature reviews don’t just report facts—they make a case for why the content you selected is essential for the research. Perhaps you feel that scenes from classic movies like Citizen Kane, The Maltese Falcon, and Holiday Inn reveal insights that inform your project. That’s great! Use the literature review to make a case for why they belong and what they reveal. You select the sources for the literature review, which means the content you feature is a stance that these concepts matter. Use the literature to justify your project.

In this piece, highlight conclusions that have been established and areas that have not been addressed. If contradictory content is found address it in the literature review. Review the theoretical framework for your project in the literature review and discuss how it connects to the research project. The literature review should contextualize why the research question(s) is/are being asked in the first place.

Often, a literature review follows this format:

  • Introduction
  • Conceptual or Theoretical Framework
  • Review of Research (organized by themes)
  • Conclusion

What do you put in a Literature Review?

In their book A student’s guide to methodology: justifying enquiry, Clough and Nutbrown (2002) present the idea that the research question is the place to start when writing a literature review. They claim that the research question contains many of the parts of a literature review. Let’s see that in action.

Here’s a question developed in 2019 by xdMFA students Ashley Lippard and Vanessa Cannon.

What values motivate a female millennial when choosing between a disposable or reusable coffee cup while inside a coffee shop?

When we take this question apart, concepts for the literature review emerge—concepts we would need to research and write about. Let’s take a look at that breakdown:

  • Values: What are they? Where do they come from? How do they affect behavior?
  • Motivation: What is it? What are the different ways people are motivated? What prevents or encourages motivation? Historically, what has motivated this age group?
  • Female Millennials: Who are they and what defines this culture? How do they behave? What decisions do they typically make? What are their values?
  • Choice: What does choosing something over another thing entail? What affects choices in this scenario? What choices are available to these people? How empowered do they feel to choose for themselves?
  • Disposable and reusable coffee cups: What are they and how did they come into being? What prompted businesses to offer these options? What are the physical features of these products? How and where are they made? How are they branded? What are the perceptions of these products?
  • Coffee Shop: What are the different types of coffee shops? What do they mean to different people? What is acceptable behavior inside one? How do they function?

In just one research question, we isolated six different major concepts. If you wanted to, you could write at least five or six pages about each of these concepts. The literature review would be 30-40 pages long! More importantly, your literature review would be a thorough overview of key concepts for those who are not familiar with your topic.

Step-by-Step: an Applied Example

Many early-career students fall into the pit of writing an annotated bibliography or a book report and they think it’s a lit review. It’s not. Don’t do that.

The literature review does not summarize your sources—it tells your story in your words. You write about concepts relevant to the research, and the sources you found to support your statements. Yes, sometimes you may call out a specific source, quoting it directly, but almost all of your literature review should be in your words. Whenever you write a sentence that is from another’s work, cite it.

The lit review should look like an Easter egg hunt: a field of grass and trees and shrubs you planted and arranged, with a sprinkling of colorful citations within reach, ready to open.

Let’s use the example above to plan out a full literature review. The language I use below is very conversational just to point you in the right direction. It is not comprehensive or complete, but it should give you an idea of what you should write in the literature review. Do not submit a lit review that reads exactly like what I have written below.

Now that’s out of the way, here’s the research question again.

What values motivate a female millennial when choosing between a disposable or reusable coffee cup while inside a coffee shop?

Lit Review Section 1: Introduction

Coffee shops are really popular in the United States and have seen a surge between 1990 and 2020 (citation). A lot of people go there. Popular shows, movies, show people hanging out in coffee shops a lot as if they are a cool place to be. Local and international-chain coffee shops permeate western culture and millennials go there a ton. It’s a place they hang out—not just for coffee, but as a Thirdspace (citation). Coffee shops are prevalent and are used daily by millions, which can lead to a great deal of paper and plastic waste in the form of disposable cups. When people buy coffee at a coffee shop, they have a choice to use a disposable cup provided by the store or to bring their own reusable cup. Both options have their own upsides and downsides—often driven by customers’ personal preferences and values but sometimes affected by how cool they want to look.

(this section should be at least 3 paragraphs)

Lit Review Section 2: Theoretical Framework

Millennials in the United States in 2020 are roughly 19 years-old. At this stage of development, they are forming their identities and are still very must about what looks cool, is stylish, and is trendy (citation). They want to be accepted and are forming their self and worldviews (citation). When these people buy coffee, they have a decision to make—to use a disposable or a reusable cup. Either choice demonstrates their values. The theory of attitudinal showing (TAS) explains how people’s outward choices demonstrate their values (This is not a real theory, y’all. I’m making this stuff up – Dennis). TAS is comprised of several parts that are relevant for this project, which is concerned with values and coolness. I will discuss those parts here.

(this section should be at least 3 paragraphs)

Lit Review Section 3: Review of Research (Organized by Themes)

This is what values are. They come from parents, friends, culture. People behave according to values. Millennials in the U.S. have these values. There has been a shift in values since industrialization. Etc. Write a lot about values based on your reading/the literature so readers know what they are and why they are part of this research project. Tell a rich story. Paint a clear picture. Cite all of your statements so readers will know where you got this information.

(this section should be at least 3 paragraphs)

Motivation is (explain it here). People are motivated by different things—extrinsic and extrinsic. This is what intrinsic and extrinsic are. Millennials are really affected by extrinsic when it comes to buying. Their motivation to choose sustainable practices can suffer when they have limited friendships and deep relationships. Historically, millennials have been motivated by television, but it seems TikTok is the main driver now (citation). Etc. Write a lot about motivation based on your reading/the literature so readers know what it is and why it is part of this research project. Tell a rich story. Paint a clear picture. Cite all of your statements so readers will know where you got this information.

(this section should be at least 3 paragraphs)

Choices are (explain it here). What does choosing something over another thing entail? What affects choices in this scenario? What choices are available to these people? How empowered do they feel to choose for themselves? Write a lot about choices based on your reading/the literature so readers know what they are and why they are part of this research project. Tell a rich story. Paint a clear picture. Cite all of your statements so readers will know where you got this information.

(this section should be at least 3 paragraphs)

Female Millennials are (explain it here). Who are they and what defines this culture? How do they behave? What decisions do they typically make? What are their values? Write a lot about female millennials based on your reading/the literature so readers know who they are and why they are part of this research project. Tell a rich story. Paint a clear picture. Cite all of your statements so readers will know where you got this information.

(this section should be at least 3 paragraphs)

Disposable and reusable coffee cups are (explain it here). What are they and how did they come into being? What prompted businesses to offer these options? What are the physical features of these products? How and where are they made? How are they branded? What are the perceptions of these products? Write a lot about coffee cups based on your reading/the literature so readers know who they are and why they are part of this research project. Tell a rich story. Paint a clear picture. Cite all of your statements so readers will know where you got this information.

(this section should be at least 3 paragraphs)

Coffee Shops are (explain it here). What are the different types of coffee shops? What do they mean to different people? What is acceptable behavior inside one? How do they function? Write a lot about coffee shops based on your reading/the literature so readers know who they are and why they are part of this research project. Tell a rich story. Paint a clear picture. Cite all of your statements so readers will know where you got this information.

(this section should be at least 3 paragraphs)

Lit Review Section 4: Conclusion

Wrap up your thoughts. Summarize the content. Connect the lit review to the next section in your Research Report (which is usually Methodology) so it flows seamlessly into the full report or dissertation.

Literature Review Guidance

In 2020, Nature posted “How to write a superb literature review,” where experts shared advice. It is a must-read.

These brief videos on literature reviews are a good introduction to the process.

Literature Review, Step By Step

Virginia Commonwealth University and UNC-Chapel Hill have great step-by-step processes for literature reviews published on their websites:

Where to Look for Literature

The literature review will catch you up on the aspects of your research topic. Use Google Scholar, the Miami University Libraries, websites, and blogs… anything that’s out there where people have written about your topic. Make sure to verify the sources you are reading are of high quality. If it’s a research paper that has been published, it’s probably ok. If it’s a blog post on a personal blog, use your common sense to verify what you’re reading is more fact than personal opinion.

More About Literature Reviews

These videos explore the literature review process in detail.

A reader should be able to remove all of the citations in the literature review and read it fluidly as if the topic is being explained in a seamless recount of what is known about the topic.

A Sample Literature Review

The best way to understand a good literature review is to read one. This Literature review, The Educational Benefits of Travel Experiences: A Literature Review, synthesizes existing knowledge elegantly, thoroughly, and clearly.

Someday, a client or stakeholder will ask you “how do you know this design direction is going to work?” When you have reviewed the literature (what other people have found) you’ll be ready to answer with confidence. Enjoy finding out about your topic. The literature review should reveal new facets of it you had never before expected.

Caution

Go deep and be detailed. Do not assume your reader knows the concepts you are discussing.

dennischeatham

Associate Professor

Miami University