A “Systematized” Literature Review Writing for Postgraduate Sociology Students: How to Find a Gap and Position Your Argument in the Literature

A “Systematized” Literature Review Writing for Postgraduate Sociology Students: How to Find a Gap and Position Your Argument in the Literature

Professors and journal editors expect that all social science postgraduate students have mastered the art of literature review writing—an important component of academic writing that assesses, appraises, and interrogates past studies.

Sadly, not all post-grad students know how to research and write a comprehensive lit review that exposes gaps and positions their argument.

This article documents a system, a model, a technique for writing a professional literature review that improves your credibility as a post-grad academic scholar.

Let’s jump right in…

How to Find a Gap in the Literature?

Most of the so-called literature review experts, even among the academics and research consultants, are amateur lit review writers. When reviewing literature for a specific sociology topic, they usually follow a four-step process:

  • Download 10 papers,
  • Copy-paste relevant paragraphs,
  • Paraphrase the copied paragraphs and
  • Steal the “limitations of the study” sections of the papers they’re reviewing.

Well, here’s the cold, hard truth:

This is the wrong way to write a literature review. I call it the easy lit review model for lazy “scholars.” I call it so because the model doesn’t require any critical thinking and reading exercise.

When you follow that model, you’re not going to find any gap in the existing studies, because there’s no synergy between the literature that you’ve “reviewed” and your proposed research gap(s). If you borrow your sister’s smartphone after a thief has stolen yours, you can’t claim that you’ve gotten a new phone, would you?

Of course not: You’ve got to buy a new phone with your money—and that requires the hard work of making some money and then buying the phone. It’s the same with writing a literature review.

It’s not an easy task. It requires higher-order thinking—critical reading and thinking capabilities that will help you describe and analyze what other studies have said. It’s not a game of paraphrasing what other scholars have documented.

You need to do these difficult tasks:

  • Download at least 30 quality research papers,
  • Read these papers with critical eyes, and
  • Critique the authors’ findings.

When you follow this difficult model, you’ll go beyond simply describing what others have said; you’ll also get the opportunity to add your voice to the ongoing debate in the literature.

How to Position Your Argument in the Literature?

Two simple steps:

Step #1: Describe.

Step #2: Analyze.

Step #1: Describe.

Start by providing general information about the work you’re reviewing to your readers. In doing so, mention the names of the authors, the problems they’re investigating, the location of the study, the methodology used, and the results of the study—before moving to analysis.

Step #2: Analyze.

To analyze is to critique, to evaluate, to raise questions. For instance, when analyzing a particular study, you can ask and answer the following questions:

  • What’s the significance of the study?
  • What’s the problem of the study?
  • What’s my proposed solution?

You need to describe as well as analyze past studies to “establish the importance of your study,” according to John Creswell, “as well as provide a benchmark for comparing the results with other findings.”

“Great,” you’d say. “But how do I incorporate all of these in my literature review paper?”

Here’s a Practical Example

Suppose you’re writing a literature review on “The Sociology of Modernity.”

Your first order of business is to download 30 research papers on the subject.

Next, you should then begin to read the papers one-by-one. Assuming you have opened one of the papers and it happens to be this one: (Figure 1: Anthony Giddens’ The Consequences of Modernity”:

Figure 1: Anthony Giddens’ Book, The Consequences of Modernity.”

How do you review this work?

1. Describe. Provide general information about the work to your readers. You do this by paraphrasing the most important points or findings in the papers you’re reviewing. So, if you find the following texts (Figure 2) worthy of reviewing, do not copy them word-for-word. That would be plagiarism.

Figure 2: Anthony Giddens’ Book, “The Consequences of Modernity.” Pp 20-21.

Instead, paraphrase it. Remember, in this step, you’re simply reporting or describing what the author says—in your own words.

Take a look at the example below:

In his qualitative study entitled, “The Consequences of Modernity,” Giddens (1990) studies the social processes and consequences of modernity. The British sociologist contextualizes his theory within the context of western societies. In the work, Giddens claims that time-space distanciation is a “disembedding mechanism.” The time-space “disembeddedness,” Giddens maintains, resulted in the lifting out of social relations from local to global and it enables people to connect with others outside of their local area. In other words, it helps in breaking geographical barriers between states (Giddens 1990).

2. Analyze. Answer three questions:

I. What’s the significance of the study?

You can write your answer as follows:

Giddens’ modernization theory is an addition to the sociology of modernity literature, especially in the ongoing debate about the movement of society from local to modern up to the era of postmodernity, as some sociologists claimed (Lyotard, 1984).

II. What’s the problem of the study?

You can phrase it as follows:

Although Giddens’ theory of modernity has provided broad sociological insights on the concept of time and space in modern times and discusses more on the concept and consequences of globalization, the theory has failed to answer one critical question—the question of how to address the social problems brought about by modern institutions not only in the west but in other non-western societies.

III. What’s my proposed solution?

Again, you can write something like this:

The current study examines how to remedy the social ills brought about by modernity both in western and non-western societies. As the world became largely driven by modern institutions, it is incumbent for researchers to not only investigate practical ways to alleviate social problems; sociologists should also expand their scientific investigations to finding solutions to emerging social issues of modernity, such as climate change, cyberbullying, and pornography, across the world.

If you incorporate all these answers into your review, your final work will look like this:

In his qualitative study entitled, “The Consequences of Modernity,” Giddens (1990) studies the social processes and consequences of modernity. The British sociologist contextualizes his theory within the context of western societies. In the work, Giddens claims that time-space distanciation is a “disembedding mechanism.” The time-space “disembeddedness,” Giddens maintains, resulted in the lifting out of social relations from local to global and it enables people to connect with others outside of their local area. In other words, it helps in breaking geographical barriers between states (Giddens 1990). Giddens’ modernization theory is an addition to the sociology of modernity literature, especially in the ongoing debate about the movement of society from local to modern up to the era of postmodernity, as some sociologists claimed (Lyotard, 1984).

Although Giddens’ theory of modernity has provided broad sociological insights on the concept of time and space in modern times and discusses more on the concept and consequences of globalization, the theory has failed to answer one critical question—the question of how to address the social problems brought about by modern institutions not only in the west but in other non-western societies.

The current study examines how to remedy the social ills brought about by modernity both in western and non-western societies. As the world became largely driven by modern institutions, it is incumbent for researchers to not only investigate practical ways to alleviate social problems; sociologists should also expand their scientific investigations to finding solutions to emerging social issues of modernity, such as climate change, cyberbullying, and pornography, across the world.

The Bottom Line

As a postgraduate sociology scholar, you can’t survive in academia if you don’t know how to craft a great literature review; if you don’t know how to find gaps in the existing studies; if you don’t know how to position your argument in the literature.

As you can see from this post, literature review writing is not only about reporting what others have documented; it’s about describing and analyzing what others have said. And that requires deep critical thinking skills—analysis, synthesis, and evaluation.

  • How much time do I need to master these skills? I WOULDN’T KNOW.
  • Is there a shortcut for mastering these important skills? THE ANSWER IS NO.
  • Can these skills be mastered with deep commitment over time? THE ANSWER IS YES.

My final words to you are these: To be a master, you have to start from somewhere. Just, as the legendary motivation expert Robin Sharma, says: “Cut your excuses in half and double the action you take.”

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