This month, my students are required to write literature reviews for their semester-long research projects. In trying to sum up my thoughts on how to go about doing a literature review, I ended up writing a little essay on the subject. I think much of the essay is pitched a little bit too high-level – more 1st year of graduate school than end of undergrad – and the specific resource links will only be useful if you are at Michigan. The rest should apply to everyone, though! If you’re curious, you can download it here.
The first section explains the four different kinds of articles we cite in lit reviews. I’m reproducing it here as I think it might be of interest, and I’d love any feedback (on this or any other section!).
Four Kinds of Articles
Articles (and books) come in many different shapes, sizes, lengths, quality, credibility, prestige, and so on. Different articles will be useful for your literature review in different ways. Roughly speaking, there are four kinds of articles that will be helpful for a literature review. You don’t need all four types, especially in a shorter literature review, but thinking about the different kinds of articles may be helpful in assessing whether or not an article “fits” into your story and, if it does, how. Note, these four kinds of articles do not exhaust the sorts of citations we use. For example, authors will frequently cite official statistics (from the Bureau of Labor Statistics for unemployment, say), or other sources of facts (history texts, textbooks, etc.). The kinds of articles discussed here are all articles “similar” to the one you are writing – a research article trying to make an argument.
1. Review Articles – Perhaps the most useful article for assembling a literature review is.. someone else’s literature review! If you are interested in, for example, music, then you might start with a 2010 article in the Annual Review of Sociology entitled “What’s Sociological about Music?” Look around the Annual Review, as it’s the best source for review pieces by far. Even a literature review from 10 or 15 years ago can be useful, as it will tell you what people were interested in back then, and can help you trace how debates have emerged. Also, you can track who has cited an annual review piece by looking it up on Google Scholar or another database (see resources below). Almost any article about the sociology of music written in the next 10 years will probably cite the review piece above somewhere. The most highly cited pieces that cite a given annual review piece rate to be the most important articles on the topic. You can also check out other disciplines’ Annual Reviews (and similar journals) if your topic is somewhat multi-disciplinary.
If you are unfortunate, and you can’t find an annual review article (or similar work) on your topic, you may still find a comprehensive literature in the beginning of another article on a related topic. Sometimes, we cite articles for their review of the literature, not their substantive findings, and that’s just fine.
We cite literature reviews for almost any purpose, but specifically, we cite them to make claims about the state of scholarship as a whole like “Most scholars in this field argue …” or “The big debate in this field is X vs. Y…” and so on.
2. Citation Classics – Citation classics are usually the best, high profile, most awesome, agenda-setting articles about your topic. Often, they are only loosely connected to your specific empirical project. You may be interested in why some people don’t like using Facebook, but the seminal articles on online social networks are mostly talking about the emergence of Instant Messenger and Friendster and were written before Facebook even existed. No problem! As we’ll discuss below, your literatures are often much broader than your case. The citation classics are places to look for overarching frameworks for how to think about many different related questions. Authors that share the same citation classics can quickly understand each other’s work because they are oriented around the same questions and using some of the same ideas.
We cite citation classics to frame our particular empirical story within a much bigger theoretical debate. We also cite them to position ourselves within a field as someone who knows what the big debates are, and often to take a side on controversial issues. For your literature reviews and papers, you may want to find one or two citation classics and adopt some of their theoretical language. In other words, you may want to work “within a tradition” established by some article or combination of articles.
3. Research Frontier – The research frontier consists of the most recently published work on your topic or things very close to it. Often, the research frontier is not as well established and it can be hard to judge the credibility or usefulness of articles on the frontier (see the section on credibility below). The most important part of the research frontier is published in the top journals. For sociology, the top “general” journals include:
American Journal of Sociology
American Sociological Review
Then, various subfields have specialty journals that are also quite prestigious. For example, Demography, International Migration Review, Journal of Marriage and the Family, Gender and Society, Theory and Society, Sociological Theory, Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Social Science and Medicine, and so on are high profile journals for their respective subfields (see below on credibility for more about status and journals).
Any article published in the past few years in one of these high profile journals may be considered part of the research frontier. Beyond this top tier of journals, there are gobs and gobs of smaller journals. It’s sometimes difficult to assess the quality of work in these journals, and sometimes it’s just not very good, but often there are articles much closer to your precise topic. Many articles in smaller journals are very high quality, but simply do not make a very interesting argument, and thus do not end up in one of the high profile journals. These can be great citations, especially for specific facts or to compare against your exact case.
In general, we cite articles on the research frontier because they are the most relevant to our projects and to show that we haven’t missed any work that makes the same argument we are making.
4. Boutique Articles – Some authors just love certain articles. They aren’t particular new, they aren’t particularly prominent, but maybe they have some amazing quote, or fun fact, or make an especially useful critique of a more prominent article. These citations add flair to an article, and sometimes act almost like a “signature move”. These are the least important kinds of citations, but they are often the most important to the author who holds a particular article dear and loves to quote some brilliant turn of phrase from it.
Now to re-work the document a bit to see if I can salvage something useful for my class.