Writing a literature review is an essential component of undergraduate as well as postgraduate studies. Being “critical” within the reviews of literature is often emphasised in academia yet most students struggle to understand the attributes which constitute a “critical literature review”. Therefore, in this entry, drawing from few of my recent readings (Saunders and Rojon 2011; Hart 1998), I summarise the key attributes of a critical literature review.
Critically reviewing literature needs to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of extant theories, debates and issues relevant to research aim and objectives. It arguments need to be clear, logical and cohesive. A critical approach to review literature needs to develop the researcher’s own appraisal and judgement of extant literature using appropriate language. In addition, it also needs to provide a critique of conventional as well as dominant discourses of knowledge while remaining critical of the potential objectivity of the researcher’s own arguments (Mingers 2000). Saunders and Rojon (2011) defines being critical as a “combination of our knowledge and understanding of what has been written, our evaluation and judgement skills and our ability to structure these clearly and logically in writing” and identifies several key attributes of a critical literature review.
Identifies and evaluates the most relevant research (and experts) relevant to the topic
It is impossible to review every single piece of literature in the relevant topic. A critical literature review does not aim to provide a summary of everything that has been written on a topic. It rather needs to acknowledge and engage with key academic theories, both seminal as well as current, within the chosen research phenomena. In addition, the critical literature review needs to inevitably acknowledge the works of experts within the field as it aims to inform research objectives and position the research. One of the common observations at undergraduate as well as postgraduate literature reviews is that they end up being uncritical summaries of previous literature. As Hart (1998) points out these are ineffective in achieving the objectives of reviewing literature and serves little value than an “annotated bibliography”. On the contrary, a critical literature review needs “to combine the academic theories and ideas thematically to form the critical review” (Saunders and Rojon 2011). In so doing, a well-written critical literature review is capable of identifying clear gaps in knowledge that has not been explored in previous literature.
Adopts a structure that creates a thematic funnel
The structure of presentation and the logical relationships between topic discussions are both important aspects of a critical literature review. It is useful to view the literature review as a “thematic funnel” that begins with a thematic overview of the key themes and ideas before narrowing down to more specific theories and frameworks relating to the specific focus of the study. Constructing a critical voice includes engaging with literature that informs research aim/objectives as well as opposes the discussion within the study. This is a crucial step towards remaining objective within the review and providing a comprehensive picture of the extant literature review. It is also imperative to distinguish facts that have emerged in previous research from the opinions of the authors (Saunders and Rojon 2011). Therefore, a critical literature review is a cohesive review of relevant literature that is organised into a logical funnel-like structure.
Contextualise and justifies aims and objectives
Reviewing extant literature has three useful functions within the research process. Firstly, it informs research aim and allows framing research objectives, especially during the initial stages of the research. Secondly, a comprehensive literature reviews allows positioning of the research in terms of the context and theoretical frameworks. This allows researchers to contextualise and justify their research. Thirdly, it also helps position the contribution of the study within the wider body of knowledge. In addition, it is also important to identify potentially appropriate methodologies referenced within extant literature that informs and supports the adopted methodological framework of the proposed study.
Comprehensive references and acknowledgements
Critical literature review needs to of course acknowledge the most important and relevant theories, frameworks and experts within the field. It is important to acknowledge seminal work that has inspired new thinking and identify the key current literature that has contributed to development of knowledge. Also, as Saunders and Rojon (2011) mention, it is useful to revisit literature during different stages of the study to review and acknowledge the most recent developments within the field.
Hart, C. (1998). Doing a literature review. London, United Kingdom: Sage
Mingers, J. (2000). What is it to be critical? Teaching and critical approach to management undergraduates. Management Learning, 31(2), 219-237.
Saunders, M. N., & Rojon, C. (2011). On the attributes of a critical literature review. Coaching: An International Journal of Theory, Research and Practice, 4(2), 156-162.