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Urban Studies & Planning: Intro to Lit Reviews

Recommended resources for doing research in urban studies and planning

Literature Review: An Overview

A literature review provides an overview of the scholarly writings published on a topic by scholars and researchers. A good literature review forms the justification for and drives your own research: it is the platform upon which you will build your argument, place your research in context ("They say") , and demonstrate how your research contributes to the broader discussion ("I say").

Specifically, a literature review:

  • Focuses on a particular question, area of research, theory or issue.
  • Provides an overview of the existing literature and knowledge gaps on a topic and reflects a critical analysis of this research. 
  • Demonstrates that you've read extensively in your field, have a thorough understanding of that field, and are capable of intelligently critiquing others' work.

Conducting a Literature Review

1. Define a research question.

Your literature review should be guided by a central research question. The research question should be neither too broad nor too narrow; it may help to start with a broad question and narrow it as you read through initial literature.

2. Decide on the scope of your review.

How comprehensive does it need to be? For example, how many years should it cover? What geographic area?

3.  Determine your search strategies.

Think of keywords and related terms that are relevant to your topic. It will probably help to start broad and then narrow the keywords based on your search results.

Look at different types of information resources and think of how they might relate and contribute to your search. (Note that this guide is intentionally designed with this idea in mind!)

  • The web and subject encyclopedias/handbooks can be useful for getting an initial feel for the topic.
  • Books are good for in-depth research, but may not be as timely as journal articles.
  • Journal articles are especially good for finding current research on a topic. Peer-reviewed journal articles are written by scholars and professionals in the field.
  • Dissertations can be especially helpful for finding related local research and bibliographies.
  • Government documents are great for primary source material, especially related to policy issues.
  • Newspapers are good for very current and very local information.

Select the databases you will use to conduct your searches. Your database choices will be partially or completely dependent on the subject you're researching. Start with the databases on this guide, then broaden out to others if necessary.  Feel free to contact Kelly if you need suggestions.

4. Conduct your searches and find your literature.

Review the abstracts of research studies carefully, rather than reading the complete articles, to determine relevance.

Write down the searches you conduct in each database so that you can duplicate them if necessary.

Be sure to get all the information you will need to cite each source; also keep track of which database each article was found in.

Use the bibliographies and cited references of studies you find to locate additional related studies. 

Keep in mind that research outside your primary focus area may be helpful for providing context.

5. Review the literature. Some guiding questions to keep in mind are:

What was the research question of the study you are reviewing? What were the authors trying to discover?

Does the research seem to be complete? Can you identify potential problems in how the research was conducted?

How does the research contribute to your understanding of the issue you are researching?

Do various authors come to the same or different conclusions? How are the articles related?

What ideas have not been covered? What are areas ripe for future research?

6. Write your paper.

You may want to sort the materials you have read based on their different themes, theoretical foundations, or conclusions. Then, for each article, describe the research that was done and the conclusions of the authors. Discuss how that particular work contributes to the understanding of the subject that you are working on.