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literature review

How To Critically Read for Literature Review?

As students and scholars, we read multiple texts daily while writing a literature review. We read dense historical and philosophical texts, newspapers and fictional works. But, most often, we read texts for the reading’s sake–do not really know how to read for literature review.

In a researcher’s life, literature reviews are paramount. A literature review is like a lay of the land. You know what is already out there and what may add a new perspective. The literature then critically evaluates broader materials in the field under study. It then helps the writer make a case for what is missing in the field, which may add a new sense to what already exists. And then how they seek to address them in their research.

A literature review includes covering the existing literature (theories and evidence) and critically evaluating everything already out there. In that vein, today’s blog will entail how you should approach a topic. How should you critically analyse a text? How do we arrive at an interpretation of the text?

List out all the essential texts in your area of interest.

Let’s say you want to study a specific problem in Indian history. You may want to explore: “What societal rules did the women in matrimonial societies sustain?” Now, if you’re going to answer this question, you should have two things in mind: One, you should be keenly interested to know “how”—you should know why you want to answer this question and why it is essential to be answered (and does it keep you up at night?). Two, you should know at least something about it.

Now that you want to study a topic, you sure wouldn’t start with a vacuum. You would know people who would already be working on the topic. So, where do you look for these things? It would then be best to refer to review articles, articles related to subjects you are interested in, and book reviews that deal with these topics.

Citation Tracing in Literature Review

Let’s say you begin by reading an article on the topic you want to study. At the end of the essay, you will find a comprehensive list of bibliographical/or references entry. More importantly, it should allow you to identify other scholars doing similar work and who you may need to read. As you read the essay, you may find a footnote, endnote, or an in-text citation. You need to follow it. You need to make sure to list all the other scholars who may be working in your research field.

Review Essays

My personal suggestion would be to get yourself acquainted with Annual Reviews. The review articles can save zillions of your precious time. Much of your bibliographical work will be completed for you by others. Of course, you should reread, understand, and rewrite the jist of these articles in your own words. That isn’t an excuse.

Research Articles

Similarly, scholarly articles can be another source of information—where you get to deal with multiple essential questions and their answers. Significant works that are well-cited are important in your field by far. But that shouldn’t prevent you from looking at not-so-well-cited texts written from the margins.

Online Sources

Google Scholar is another vital source of research. There are JSTOR, and Project MUSE, where you can access articles from various journals in collaboration with these organisations. It would be best to look for all the articles within the last five to ten years to get a sense of the current trends and debates on your research topic. This step is essential.

What to do with all the articles while doing a literature review?

Once you get hold of the articles you think are essential, you don’t have to start reading them all in full. You won’t be able to read everything that is out there under the sky. You have to understand the thematic arguments the scholars are making in your mind. For instance, you need to know who is saying what? And how is their argument contributing to the more significant scholarly debate? And how do others critique this line of argument? And are they right in doing so?

To get a broad sense of the kinds of debates in your field of inquiry, you may need to look for recent books and their introductory or the first two chapters. They should contain all the debates and scholarly engagements in the field.

read for literature review

Once you understand the kinds of arguments in a field, you need to know who is arguing what. To do so, you need to list the scholars, books, and the arguments they make in a separate section. It would be best to look for new books, as they contain the most recent debates.

Even as you tread through those reviews, essays, and books, carefully review the citations and footnotes. These footnotes contain all that is not mentioned in the main text. But it is the most critical element of the text.

It would help if you also got yourself used to the index. Each book contains an index at the end of it. More importantly, these indexes include the topics dealt with in the book and the associated page numbers. Understanding the role of the index will save zillions of time in research.

Prepare an annotated bibliography while doing a literature review.

Now once you have gotten hold of all the articles, books and review essays, You need to create an annotated bibliography. An annotated bibliography could be an “organised, systematic dump of all your synthetic notes”.

I use Notion to do this work. I may list out all the citations of the articles I will read, along with the quotes and key arguments the scholars are doing, along with the page numbers. You may as well add abstracts of articles to do so.

How do you read the texts critically?

Now the question is should you read everything, cover to cover? Should you aim to get hold of all the factual information you can get? Or is there a method to approach it?

In his The Craft of International History, Marc Trachtenberg argues that there is an “active method” to doing the critical reading. To do so, you must first ask: “What’s the author driving at?” in this essay? Is there a singular argument? Or are there multiple arguments intertwined with one another? So, how do you do this?

What to look for in a text?

First, you need to know the title and, more importantly, the subtitle. Most of what an author would want to convey would exist in a title and a subtitle. The subtitle, more so. For instance, Ken Waltz’s Man, The State, and War, a theoretical analysis, may not give you a broad sense of the topic covered. But you will still understand that it may deal with war and statecraft.

read for literature review

Initially, you may not think about Waltzian “levels of analysis”. However, as you venture into the chapter’s introduction, you will get a sense of the kinds of debates around war and the kinds of questions the scholar asks.

YOU MUST NEVER LOSE SIGHT OF WHAT THE SCHOLAR IS SEEKING TO ANSWER!

What is the structure of the core argument?

Now let’s say you understand what the author is asking and seeking to answer. You then need to ask: what is the core argument? What is the structure of the core argument? Do they sustain on empiricals? Documents?Historical materials? Data? Surveys? Broadly, what are the methods this author is trying to grapple with? And does it make sense?

To understand the structure of an essay, or a book, you should look at the table of contents. The book’s structure will provide us with the structure of the argument. The introductory chapter also helps in this regard.

Do the arguments fit well?

Say you understood what the author is trying to get at. Say you also read through the work. Now you need to ask yourself, does it make sense?

REMEMBER ALWAYS TO ASK: DOES IT MAKE SENSE?

Your goal in reading a book is to know how far you are convinced by the argument the author seeks to drive at. You need to ask: is the book logically flowing? For instance, it should ask: Is the argument internally consistent? Or does the author say different things at different times?

Then, you need to ask: Is the evidence provided by the author convincing enough? Does the evidence really prove what the author is driving you at? Is that enough evidence at all? Are there contradictions in the arguments which are only mentioned in footnotes? Footnotes are critical to all historical works. Therefore, they contain treasures that you won’t find deep in the sea—pure academic treasure.

Trachtenberg notes:

If you want to get to the bottom of the historical issue, it is not the money you should follow. It is footnotes.

(2006, 87)

Raul Pacheco-Vega sums up literature review as: “Read, Summarise, Synthesize, Write.”

A broad process of critical analysis

  • You first identify an author’s key questions and the kinds of answers he seeks to provide
  • You then try to get a sense of the structure of the argument
  • You then look at the general conclusions of the text
  • You then analyse if it makes sense, which means you evaluate all the evidence.
reading setup literature review

Always ask these questions while doing a literature review:

  1. What is the author’s question/puzzle seeking to find?
  2. Has the author defined its significance, scope, and relevance clearly?
  3. What are the methods he is seeking to approach the questions with?
  4. Are those methods the proper methods to approach? Or if they had used other methods, would their assessment have been different?
  5. Has the author correctly evaluated the existing literature? If not, what is missing?
  6. Is the author’s answer to the question convincing enough?
  7. How does this author’s essay relate to my own research?

Next Steps for Literature Review:

Once you have read through articles for your literature review, you should be able to make sense of the broader arguments that pervade your research question. You should also be able to organise these arguments in a separate section. Engage them. Juxtapose them against one another. See if you follow a trend. See if there are similar themes emanating from these readings.

These are the important steps you follow when reading for your literature review. Reading for the literature review is only a part of the process. Writing critically is altogether another vital process. I hope to cover how to write your literature review in the next blog post critically.

The subsequent blog should contain inputs on how to write your literature review. Read that here. I hope this blog post has been helpful for all those who want to get to writing. 😊


Other Resources:

Check out other related articles: http://adarshbadri.me/guide-to-research-in-politics-and-ir/

How to Write Your Literature Review Critically: http://adarshbadri.me/write-your-literature-review-critically/

Key International Relations Text: Read Kenneth Waltz’s Man, The State and War here.

On Literature Review:

  1. Raul Pacheco-Vega: http://www.raulpacheco.org/resources/literature-reviews/
  2. Marc Trachtenberg’s The Craft of International History, refer here.

On Annotated Bibliography:

  1. University of New England: Writing an annotated bibliography
  2. Douglas College: Creating an Annotated Bibliography.
  3. Edith Cowan University: A Tips Sheet for Writing Annotated Bibliographies.

2 thoughts on “How To Critically Read for Literature Review?”

  1. Thank you Adarsh. It is really a very helpful blog post. It saved me “zillions of time” in looking for a starter’s guide to writing. 😊

    1. Many thanks, Hardik. I am glad this article has been helpful 🙂 I hope to write more as extensions to these essays, so keep hanging once a while.

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