Social Work Literature Review Guidelines
This handout provides an overview of how to write literature reviews in the field of social work. It provides a list of suggestions and examples.
Contributors:Dana Lynn Driscoll
Last Edited: 2013-10-26 09:25:22
Literature reviews are designed to do two things: 1) give your readers an overview of sources you have explored while researching a particular topic or idea and 2) demonstrate how your research fits into the larger field of study, in this case, social work.
Unlike annotated bibliographies which are lists of references arranged alphabetically that include the bibliographic citation and a paragraph summary and critique for each source, literature reviews can be incorporated into a research paper or manuscript. You may quote or paraphrase from the sources, and all references to sources should include in-text parenthetical citations with a reference list at the end of the document. Sometimes, however, an instructor may require a separate literature review document and will have specific instructions for completing the assignment.
Below you will find general guidelines to consider when developing a literature review in the field of social work. Because social work is a social science field, you will most likely be required to use APA style. Please see our APA materials for information on creating parenthetical citations and reference lists.
1. Choose a variety of articles that relate to your subject, even if they do not directly answer your research question. You may find articles that loosely relate to the topic, rather than articles that you find using an exact keyword search. At first, you may need to cast a wide net when searching for sources.
For example: If your research question focuses on how people with chronic illnesses are treated in the workplace, you may be able to find some articles that address this specific question. You may also find literature regarding public perception of people with chronic illnesses or analyses of current laws affecting workplace discrimination.
2. Select the most relevant information from the articles as it pertains to your subject and your purpose. Remember, the purpose of the literature review is to demonstrate how your research question fits into a larger field of study.
3. Critically examine the articles. Look at methodology, statistics, results, theoretical framework, the author's purpose, etc. Include controversies when they appear in the articles.
For example: You should look for the strengths and weaknesses of how the author conducted the study. You can also decide whether or not the study is generalizable to other settings or whether the findings relate only to the specific setting of the study. Ask yourself why the author conducted the study and what he/she hoped to gain from the study. Look for inconsistencies in the results, as well.
4. Organize your information in the way that makes most sense. Some literature reviews may begin with a definition or general overview of the topic. Others may focus on another aspect of your topic. Look for themes in the literature or organize by types of study.
For example: Group case studies together, especially if all the case studies have related findings, research questions, or other similarities.
5. Make sure the information relates to your research question/thesis. You may need to explicitly show how the literature relates to the research question; don't assume that the connection is obvious.
6. Check to see that you have done more than simply summarize your sources. Your literature review should include a critical assessment of those sources. For more information, read the Experimental Psychology - Writing a Literature Review handout for questions to think about when reading sources.
7. Be sure to develop questions for further research. Again, you are not simply regurgitating information, but you are assessing and leading your reader to questions of your own, questions and ideas that haven't been explored yet or haven't been addressed in detail by the literature in the field.
A Literature Review Is Not:
- just a summary of sources
- a grouping of broad, unrelated sources
- a compilation of everything that has been written on a particular topic
- literature criticism (think English) or a book review
So, what is it then?
A literature review is an integrated analysis-- not just a summary-- of scholarly writings that are related directly to your research question. That is, it represents the literature that provides background information on your topic and shows a correspondence between those writings and your research question.
A literature review may be a stand alone work or the introduction to a larger research paper, depending on the assignment. Rely heavily on the guidelines your instructor has given you.
Why is it important?
A literature review is important because it:
- Explains the background of research on a topic.
- Demonstrates why a topic is significant to a subject area.
- Discovers relationships between research studies/ideas.
- Identifies major themes, concepts, and researchers on a topic.
- Identifies critical gaps and points of disagreement.
- Discusses further research questions that logically come out of the previous studies.