five ways to structure a literature review

You’ve read. And read. And read. You’ve noted. And noted. And how. You’ve written summaries and memos. You’ve made groupings and mind-maps of the reading. But you’re still a bit away from actually writing about the literatures. You’re still not sure how to wrestle all of that material into a compliant text. You know the purposes of the literature review. But that doesn’t tell you what structure will work for your particular project.

Before you put pen to paper – or hand to mouse – it might help you to now think about the ways in which literature chapters, if you decide to have one, are most often structured. You can then see if one of the usual ways will work for you.

So here’s a set of five possibilities.


  • A chronology

As the name suggests, this is an historical map of the field. In writing historically, your intention is to show how your research either adds logically to what has gone before, or to show how your research challenges a taken for granted assumption in the field, or how it advances a particular body of work in the field. In doing this kind of temporal mapping, you need to highlight the key texts, groups and categories that your work is building on and/or speaking to. Even though a chronology is  linear, you need to also trace threads and associations through your chosen timeline.


  • Major themes

You might choose to just focus on mapping the current themes or topics in the field Your intention here is to show how your research connects to, uses and adds/speaks to contemporary themes/topics. You structure the thematic review through either an examination of the kinds of questions that have been asked and the topics that have been studied, or a look at the key concepts and categories that have been developed and used, or even a look at methodological and methods that are used.


  • The canon/classic studies

This can be standalone, a variation on either (1) or (2) or may also appear as a subsection of either of them. Your intention in a canonic review is to show how your research fits with the studies that can’t be ignored. This kind of literatures review is always heavily evaluative and comparative, so you usually need to set out some explicit criteria, drawn from your research question, that allows you discuss specific texts in some detail. You need to make a very clear connection with your study. One of the metaphors used for this kind of literature work is a tree, where the ‘trunk’ of the discipline is its classic studies.


  • The  wheel

Research very often draws on more than one body of literatures. These might be from different disciplines or be literatures that have been used to address very different topics. Your intention in the wheel-like review is to show that the originality of your research stems from the ways in which you’ve brought together areas that are usually kept apart. This bringing together is clearly elaborated in the discussion of literatures, where each formerly separate chunk is discussed in relation to your research interest. You need to draw out the key contributions of each corpus of literatures and their relevance to your research. You also need to show very clearly the ways in which the various spokes work together- you must show how the various spokes relate to and support the centre of the wheel – this is where your research is situated.


  • The pyramid

A pyramid literature review places your research in its context. Your intention is to show how your research interest is shaped and framed by other events/practices/people/policies etc. The literature review can be organised to start from the tip – what there is written about your specific topic already – and then move out and down through relevant contextualising literatures. More commonly, the pyramid is inverted, and the review begins with the wider context, honing in ever closer to your topic. The concluding tip section of the inverted pyramid review is what is written about your particular topic. By then you have indicated all of the potential issues and insights you will need to bring to your study.

There are of course variations on these  five structures and various ways to combine them. You will ‘bespoke’ your literature review to fit your topic. However, if you are at a stuck point with structure it can help to simply brainstorm how you would organise your material in some or all of these ways.

It is crucial to remember that the literature review is not a summary, a description or a list! Because the literature review is always an argument about why your research is the way that it is, some play with structure will help you to think through which set of moves allow you to make the most persuasive case.

See also other posts on work with literatures.

About pat thomson

Pat Thomson is Professor of Education in the School of Education, The University of Nottingham, UK
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7 Responses to five ways to structure a literature review

  1. Rakesh Krishnan says:

    Dear Pat,
    I am a great fan of your blog. I find this piece very useful.



  2. evec.tercera says:

    I love all the posts and the shares !it enhances my little knowledge about research!! planning to have some researching! Thanks!


  3. Cecile says:

    Reblogged this on Cecile Badenhorst and commented:
    Here’s a blog on writing literature reviews. I particularly liked the idea of the wheel structure.


  4. Pingback: the blogging scramble | patter

  5. azarvigeh says:

    would you please explain what the main difference is between a critical review and a systematic review? I mean how the structure of these two reviews are different.


  6. emma-joy says:

    Reblogged this on Emma.


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