The way you approach your question will have a profound effect upon the way you construct your dissertation, so this section discusses the types of research you might undertake for your dissertation. The use of literature and case studies is considered and the merits of primary research are debated and advice is given on the use of existing research data. You may not be fond of statistics, but the potential relevance of a quantitative approach should be considered and similarly, the idea of qualitative analysis and conducting your own research may yield valuable data. The possibilities of using quantitative and qualitative data are also discussed.
Watch video on approaching methodologies (.wmv)
What approach should I take - qualitative or quantitative?
This video clip contains comments from the following academics:
- Dr Iain Garner - Psychology
- Alan McGauley - Social Policy
- Shawna McCoy - Criminology
- Kevin Bonnett - Sociology
What approach should I take - qualitative or quantitative?
Your approach, research design, and research question are all connected. 'Approach' means something more than the type of data you use – it refers to your overall orientation to research and the type of claims you will make for your study. Dissertations can be based on either quantitative or qualitative data, or on a combination of both. How you choose this may depend on your preferences and abilities, and the suitability of particular approaches to your topic. You need to be able to justify why you have chosen to use such data. Quantitative data is particularly useful when you wish to discover how common particular forms of behaviour such as illegal drug use are for a particular age group. Qualitative data is particularly useful when you wish to find out why people engage in such behaviour.
Think about the Research Methods modules you have taken so far. Think about the different kinds of studies you have read for other modules. There is plenty of scope to use the approaches and methods that you are most comfortable with. You need to justify your approach and methods and to cite appropriate literature to help you do this.
What if I want to find out about social trends, or the measurable effects of particular policies?
You will probably want to use large datasets and undertake quantitative data analysis, and you will be adopting a realist approach to the topic studied. Quantitative dissertations are likely to be nearer to the lower end of the range of approved lengths for the dissertation (e.g. if the length is to be 5,000-8,000 words, dissertations based on quantitative analysis are likely to be closer to 5,000 words in length). They will also include tables and figures giving your important findings. Remember that all tables must be carefully titled and labelled and that sources of your data must be acknowledged.
What if I want to record people's views on an issue, and give them a 'voice'?
You will probably want to use in-depth qualitative data, and you may wish to adopt a realist, a phenomenologist, or a constructionist approach to the topic. Qualitative dissertations will include descriptive material, usually extracts from interviews, conversations, documents or field notes, and are therefore likely to be nearer to the upper limit of your word range (e.g. 8,000 words). The types of method suitable for a dissertation could include content analysis, a small scale ethnographic study, small scale in-depth qualitative interviewing.
Whether you choose qualitative or quantitative analysis will depend on several things:
- Your preferred philosophical approach (realist, phenomenologist or constructionist).
- Your skills and abilities with methods of data collection (if needed) and analysis.
- The topic or issue you are interested in.
- How you frame your research question.
Can I combine qualitative and quantitative methods?
There are many ways in which qualitative and quantitative data and analysis can be combined. Here are two examples.
- You may be interested in doing an analysis that is primarily quantitative, looking at social trends, or policy implications. However you also want to introduce a 'human touch' by conducting one or several interviews asking what these trends mean to people or how particular individuals experience events. After doing your quantitative analysis, you should include a chapter or section on the qualitative data you have collected. In your discussion of findings you can use the qualitative data to help you understand the patterns in the quantitative analysis.
- You may be interested in doing an evaluative case study of a process or policy. You will have a particular focus – a 'case' that you are looking at. You will triangulate methods – i.e. collect data in several different ways, and some of these data may be quantitative. You will analyse each type of data and describe this, and then write a discussion that shows how each piece of analysis contributes to the overall picture of what is going on.
Your supervisor or research methods tutor may be able to give you detailed examples of these or other ways to combine methods.
Can my dissertation be entirely literature-based?
Yes. If you decide to do a primarily theoretical dissertation, it is almost certain that your dissertation will be entirely literature-based. This is likely to be the methodology of theoretical analysis: selection and discussion of theoretical material and descriptive material, in context, and detailed comparison of theories in terms of their applicability. You might ask how useful certain concepts or theories are for understanding particular patterns of behaviour. How useful is the concept of institutional racism? Is objectivity in the media possible? How useful is subcultural theory for understanding virtual communities? Here, the focus of attention is not so much to discover something about the social world, for example virtual communities, as to reach a judgement about the value of key concepts or theories in understanding that world. How the study is approached and how contrasting approaches are drawn upon needs to be stated very clearly.
A library-based or theoretical study is not necessarily 'easier' than an empirical study, indeed, it may well be harder. Remember that theoretical studies, like data-based studies, need to have their research design spelled out from the start.
But even if your dissertation is more empirically focused, it could still be entirely literature-based. You might choose to conduct a review of a field of work. What does the research literature in this field tell us about x? While all dissertations will include a literature review, it is possible to produce a dissertation that is entirely based on a review of the literature. If you do this, it is important to review the literature from an explicit angle and identify some themes to make the review distinctive. You might, for example, explore empirical debates in your chosen field across different countries or time periods.
What is case study research?
Whilst it is possible for dissertations to be entirely literature-based, the most common form of dissertation takes the form of a case study. Here the focus of attention is on a particular community, organisation or set of documents. The attraction of this kind of dissertation is that it stems from empirical curiosity but is at the same time practical. You may be interested in a wider question but a case study enables you to focus on a specific example. A major challenge in case study dissertations is connecting your own primary research or re-analysis with the broader theoretical themes and empirical concerns of the existing literature.
What's an empirical study?
Most dissertations demand either primary or secondary research. In other words, you usually have to analyse data that you have either collected yourself or data that is already available. The reason for this is that the questions dissertations usually address take the following form: Is x happening? Is x changing? Why is x happening? Why is x changing? These questions demand primary or secondary analysis of data.
Case Study 9 Think hard before you decide to undertake empirical research: a student's view
What is secondary analysis?
Secondary analysis is when you analyse data which was collected by another researcher. It allows the researcher to explore areas of interest without having to go through the process of collecting data themselves in the field. The problem with using fieldwork methods in an undergraduate dissertation, however, is that they are costly in terms of time (which is relatively scarce in your final year!) and possibly your own financial resources too. You may choose, therefore, to undertake secondary research, analysing existing data.
Where do I find existing research data?
There are a range of documents that already contain research data that you can analyse. You may, for example, be interested in exploring whether gender stereotypes in the media are changing. This might entail content analysis of newspapers, magazines, video or other media over different time periods. Here you would not be collecting your own data but instead would be analysing existing documents.
Download Case Study 6 Media research
If you are interested, for example, in doing historical research, you may need to visit archives. Government reports and autobiographies may also be used as data.
Other documents include official statistics, datasets (statistical data), and banks of interview transcripts which are all freely available to the academic community. Increasingly, documents, databases and archives are readily accessible online. Research Methods tutors on your course will be able to advise on the availability and accessibility of such data sets.
There are some advantages of doing secondary analysis, particularly if you are doing a quantitative study. You will be able to work with much larger datasets than you could have collected yourself. This has the following advantages:
- They allow you to discuss trends and social changes.
- The data are often collected through a random sample, which allows you to generalise to the population under consideration.
- They may also allow you to make comparisons over time, as some datasets are products of longitudinal studies. Examples of large datasets include the British Crime Survey, and the Youth Cohort Study. Smaller, more targeted datasets may also be available.
- Secondary analysis has disadvantages also: the data were collected for a purpose different from yours.
- You have to find out something about that purpose, as well as the methods of collection, in order to justify your use of a secondary dataset.
Collecting you own data - primary research
Quantitative data may also result from non-participant observations or other measurements (e.g. in an experimental design). Also, sometimes data that are collected through qualitative processes (participant observation, interviews) are coded and quantified. Your research methods tutor can give you further information on these types of data, but here are some common quantitative data collection methods and their definitions:
A series of questions that the respondent answers on their own. Self-completion questionnaires are good for collecting data on relatively simple topics, and for gaining a general overview of an issue. Questionnaires need to have clear questions, an easy to follow design, and not be too long.
Similar to a self-completion questionnaire, except that the questions that are asked by an interviewer to the interviewee. The same questions are read out in the same way to all respondents. There will typically be a fixed choice of answers for the respondents.
Watching people and recording systematically their behaviour. Prior to the observation, an observation schedule will be produced which details what exactly the researcher should look for and how those observations should be recorded.
If you are conducting a qualitative analysis you are likely to wish to use at least some original material. This may be collected through in-depth interviews, participant observation recordings and fieldnotes, non-participant observation, or some combination of these. Below are some data collection methods that you might want to use for your dissertation:
A way of asking questions which allows the interviewee to have more control of the interview. The interview could be semi-structured, which uses an interview schedule to keep some control of the interview, but also allows for some flexibility in terms of the interviewee’s responses. The interview could be unstructured, here the aim is to explore the interviewee’s feelings about the issue being explored and the style of questioning is very informal. Or the interview could be a life history where the interviewer tries to find out about the whole life, or a portion of the person’s life.
A form of interviewing where there are several participants; there is an emphasis in the questioning on a tightly defined topic; the accent is on interaction within the group and the joint construction of meaning. The moderator tries to provide a relatively free rein to the discussion.
This involves studying people in naturally occurring settings. The researcher participates directly in the setting and collects data in a systematic manner. The researcher will observe behaviour, listen to conversations, and ask questions.
Spend some time looking at general books about research - they will give you an overview of the data collection methods available and help you to make the best choice for your project. Bryman (2004) would be a useful starting point.
For any piece of research you conduct, be it empirically based (quantitative or qualitative) or library based, its methods must be justified. You need to show in the final dissertation how you have given consideration to different methods, and why you have chosen and eliminated these.
STUDENT VOICE: Findings from our research
In our study, supervisors saw part of their role as someone who draws out students’ reasons for choosing a particular research approach. Often in early supervision meetings they ask students to justify their reasons for choosing a library-based or an empirical study. (Todd, Smith and Bannister 2006, p167).
Your supervisor will want you to offer convincing reasons as to why you’ve chosen the approach you have - so be ready!
If you’re having difficulty making that choice, don’t be afraid to ask your supervisor for their advice. This was particularly useful for one of our respondents:
It's been a valuable experience for me it's so different from other stuff. With other essays you can rush them if you have to ... but this is so much work, you can't rush it. It demands more. (Todd, Bannister and Clegg, 2004, p340)
….My reasons for data collection is literature based as my research question involved sensitive subjects which would have been unsuitable for primary data collection. (Level 6 students at Sheffield Hallam University)
I chose primary data because it would enable me to build skills that would be useful for postgraduate study. (Level 6 students at Sheffield Hallam University)
It will involve primary data, secondary data, quantitative and qualitative research methods, lit reviews, theory and policy studies and an exploration of alternatives. My dissertation is to be based around the experience of 'poverty', as poverty is the experience. Theories and policies are not. However, to do justice to the subject, theories and policies will be included so Iam able to demonstrate where failures in the system may exist. (Level 6 students at Sheffield Hallam University)
Note: Research must be conducted in a sensible and ethical manner; data must be analysed and presented in a rational manner. It is important that students do not expose themselves or others to dangers or risks when conducting research. Students need the approval of their dissertation supervisor before embarking on any type of fieldwork (see the section on Research Ethics for more information).
Will my research be inductive or deductive?
In general, deductive research is theory-testing and inductive research is theory-generating. Often people link deductive research with quantitative experiments or surveys, and inductive research with qualitative interviews or ethnographic work. These links are not hard and fast – for instance, experimental research, designed to test a particular theory through developing a hypothesis and creating an experimental design, may use quantitative or qualitative data or a combination. If your research starts with a theory and is driven by hypotheses that you are testing (e.g. that social class background and social deprivation or privilege are likely to affect educational attainment), it is, broadly speaking, deductive. However much research combines deductive and inductive elements.
What's all this about research design?
Research design is vital to conducting a good piece of work. At the start of your research you need to set down clearly:
- Your research focus and research question.
- How you propose to examine the topic:
- methods of data collection
- methods of data analysis
- The types and sources of information you need.
- How you will access these sources of information (be they people, existing datasets, biographical accounts, media articles or websites, official records).
- The proposed outcome of this research (in your case, a dissertation) and the form it will take.
- A time-frame for all this.
You and your supervisor will discuss your design and decide whether the research is 'do-able'. Your university may require you to produce a report (e.g. an 'interim framework report' or a short 'research proposal') that specifies your research design. Other people may have to look at the design to ascertain whether there are ethical issues that affect your research.
- Quantitative or qualitative? A quantitative approach will mean you will need substantial datasets, as well as the inclusion of tables and statistics in your final submission. This information could come from a variety of sources - remember to acknowledge them! A qualitative approach will probably mean conducting interviews or focus groups or observing behaviour. Ask yourself if you are prepared to do this, and think about the best way of getting the answers you want from people. Will you stop people in the street? Will you conduct telephone interviews? Will you send out survey forms and hope that people return them? Will you be a participant or non participant observer?
- Deductive or inductive?Deductive research is theory-testing, which is often linked to datasets, surveys or quantitative analysis. Inductive research is theory-generating, and is often linked to qualitative interviews.
- Empirical or theoretical? An empirical study could involve close analysis of statistics or some form of qualitative research. However, a theoretical study brings its own challenges, and you may be called upon to compare theories in terms of their applicability.
- Once you have decided upon your approach, you can write out a research design, i.e. how you are going to approach the project.
- Now look a little at the research methods that you have studied. Apart from matching your research to your general sense of objective/subjective reality, it is important to ensure that you match your methodology to the problem you are pursuing.
- What kind of data do you need to answer your question/test your hypothesis? How would you best be able to collect that data?
- Again, consider time and feasibility of the exercise. The ability to manage your time will be directly related to your ability to control the boundaries of the study – especially if it is closely linked to your workplace.
- Now that you have got so far, try to write up your research proposal as far as you can. Make sure that you identify where your proposal needs further work and, at the same time, where you will have to put your maximum effort. It may be helpful to draw a critical path so that you are clear which actions you need to take and in what sequence. You will find it helpful to plot your research questions on the chart on the next page and ensure that your plans for collecting data really answer the question as well as avoiding ethical problems.
- At this stage you must be really ruthless with yourself. How viable is it? What are the threats to the study? Try some 'what if?' questions on yourself. It will be better to go back to the drawing board now, than once the project is underway.
- IMPORTANT: Whatever approach you settle on, you MUST be able to justify its appropriateness to your topic and question.
- Does the data required to answer your question already exist or will you have to generate your own data?
- Can you combine quantitative with qualitative methods? e.g. a survey which includes interviews or a case study that looks at a situation from numerous angles.
- What factors may limit the scope of your research? (time, resources, etc.)
- Which method(s) best suit the questions and time you have available to do this study?
- Do you know the differences between types of data, and types of analysis?
- Does your project have clear links between theory and practice?
BRYMAN, A. (2004). Social Research Method. 2nd ed., Oxford, Oxford University Press
CRESWELL, J. (2002). Research Design: Qualitative, Quantitative, and Mixed Methods Approaches. 2nd ed., London, Sage
SEALE, C.(2006).Researching society and culture. London, Sage
Here are some references for specific methods:
ARKSEY, H and KNIGHT, P. (1999).Interviewing for social scientists: an introductory resource. London, Sage
DALE, A.; ARBER, S.; AND PROCTOR, M.(1998).Doing Secondary Analysis. London, Allen and Unwin
HAMMERSLEY, M. and ATKINSON, P. (1995).Ethnography: Principles in Practice. London, Routledge
OPPENHEIM, A. N. (1992).Questionnaire Design, Interviewing and Attitude Measurement. London, Pinter
Identifying a research topic:
A template for structured observation:
A site devoted to survey design:
A chapter on structured interviewing:
A chapter on qualitative interviewing:
An introduction to ethnographic research:
Materials for focus group interviews:
1. © Professor Chris Winch, Dr Malcolm Todd, Ian Baker, Dr Jenny Blain, Dr Karen Smith
Writing the Dissertation1
By the time you start to write the first draft of your dissertation, you will probably already have accumulated a wealth of notes, scribbles and ideas. Planning is essential, but do not be hesitate to draw up new plans whether it is a brief abstract of your dissertation as a whole, or a detailed breakdown of a particular chapter. This section looks at effective planning, which should be a continuous process that intensifies during the writing of your dissertation and not something that fades into the background.
Do all dissertations look the same?
At one level, yes. They will have to:
- Formulate a clear question that your dissertation seeks to answer.
- Review the literature in the field relating to your question.
- Engage in independent research in addressing this question.
- Justify whatever methods you choose to undertake your research.
- Present and discuss your findings, whilst demonstrating how they relate to your original question.
Do all dissertations look the same? This video clip contains comments from the following academics:
- Kevin Bonnett
- Malcolm Todd
- Shawna McCoy
- Christopher Christopher-Dowey
Case Study 12 Making sure your dissertation doesn't get on top of you
Producing a 'working title'
Insofar as the preparation of the dissertation is a process of investigation and discovery, the precise scope of your study may well only emerge as you become closely involved in a detailed review of the literature. At this early stage, your title may be a provisional one that you will revise later. Your dissertation supervisor may advise on the title in order to help you find and define the focus of the dissertation.
You should examine articles in scholarly journals for examples of appropriate titles for a study of this length.
Starting to write the dissertation
Supervisors have different ways of working and you will, to some degree, need to negotiate your approach to supervision style. For example, your supervisor may advise you to write a short proposal or abstract, say of about 300 words, in which you set out as clearly as possible what you intend to do in the dissertation. The value of this exercise is that it requires you to focus and articulate your thinking. It may be that you will be able to summarise the exact nature and scope of your study, in which case the proposal can serve as guide to refer to as you write the main chapters of the work. Alternatively, it may make you aware of gaps in your knowledge and understanding, and show you the areas that need further thought and research.
It is useful, therefore, to write the proposal and to retain it for reference and revision. It helps to attempt such an abstract even if your supervisor has not suggested that you write one. However, practice varies, and your supervisor will advise you on how to proceed. As you continue to write the main chapters of the work, you may find that your initial plan has changed. This means that when you have completed the chapters that form the main body of your dissertation you can return to the proposal and revise it as much as you need, to form the introduction.
It is highly advisable to draft a plan of the dissertation. There is a lot in common between different dissertations regarding the structure and although you do not need to stick slavishly to a standard plan, such a plan is very helpful as a template to impose some order on what may seem an unmanageable task. Here is an indicative structure that might help you with your initial plan.
The field of study, the research question, the hypothesis (if any) or, more generally, the research question that is to be investigated. It should also include a summary of the contents and main arguments in the dissertation.
The Literature Review
Usually, this comes immediately after the introductory chapter. This may be more than one chapter, but should certainly be written in sections. This should include previous work done on the field of study and anything that you consider to be relevant to the hypothesis or research question and to its investigation. It will include a large number of references to the literature in your chosen area.
This section should include an account of the research questions and/or hypotheses to be investigated, relevant methods of investigation and an argument for why you think these methods are the most appropriate ones for the question and for your circumstances. You should consider the benefits of your chosen method as well as identifying any disadvantages and how you overcame them. Ethical issues and the ways in which you dealt with them should be noted. This section should also discuss any variations from the original fieldwork plan, and should conclude with a reflection on the experience of doing fieldwork.
This section should present the main findings of your research together with an account of the strengths and weaknesses of your data relative to your research question/hypothesis. You may also wish to include an evaluation of any difficulties you encountered in collecting and analysing data, together with an assessment of how this affected your plan of research.
Here you can provide an assessment of whether and how well you were able to answer your research question and/or confirm/reject your hypotheses.
This chapter must relate the findings to the theoretical/policy discussion in your literature review. You should NOT introduce any new literature at this stage.
Conclusions and recommendations
An overall assessment of what you found out, how successful you were and suggestions for future research.
Beginning work on the main body of the dissertation
Once you have produced the proposal and discussed it with your supervisor, you may want to write the first draft of a chapter of the dissertation. When you hand in this draft, you should arrange a tutorial to receive your supervisor's verbal or written comments and suggestions on how it may be improved. You may, for example, produce a draft introduction setting out the issue, together with a literature review which covers what, if any, treatment of the topic has gone beforehand. You may also wish to draft those sections of the methodology chapter that cover the methods that you wish to use, together with a justification for why you think those methods are best.
Revising sections after receiving the supervisor's comments
When you have received your supervisor's comments on the draft of any chapter, you should revise that particular chapter immediately. Prompt revision is easier than letting things drift, and you should do it while the advice of your supervisor is fresh in your mind. This will also avoid building up a backlog of work that needs to be revised, which can be discouraging. Having the material on a computer disk will enable you to do revisions efficiently and with a minimum of fuss. Be sure to back up all your work on a floppy disk, CD, or memory stick.
Organising your time
Depending on the credit rating of the dissertation, the amount of time you devote to it should be equivalent to the time you would devote to a taught course with the same credit rating; that is, seminar and lecture time plus time for private study.
Findings from our Research
In our research we found that students often did not think about the credit rating of their dissertation and actually spent more time working on it than they should have! They saw it as such an important part of their degree that they wanted to put more into it:
It [the dissertation] took up more of my time ... Once you get into it, you have to out in the effort. It’s 8000 words, plus there’s so much to do. When you’re doing it, it seems so much more that the rest of your work (Todd, Bannister and Clegg, 2004, p341).
However, this can have a detrimental effect on your other modules - one student said ‘I did the dissertation and left the other work’ - don’t make his mistake. All the modules in the final year are important.
You will find that once the final year begins, the weeks go by very quickly, and you will need to organise your time well from the start so that the ongoing preparation of your dissertation continues alongside work for the taught units you are studying. Once you have a workable plan it is much easier to plan the work in sequence and to set yourself targets for the completion of the separate parts (see the section on Getting started with the Dissertation). Allow plenty of time for final revisions after your tutor has seen a complete draft.
If you are taking a dissertation over two semesters, you should aim to spend the equivalent of one full half-day per week working on your dissertation during each semester of your final year if it is worth 20 credits - nearer twice that amount of time if it is a 40-credit dissertation.
Deadlines for producing drafts
You will decide with your supervisor precisely when to produce drafts, but if you are taking a dissertation module over one academic year then by the end of the first semester you would normally expect to produce a proposal or abstract and a first draft of one or two chapters. You would then produce the drafts of the remaining chapters and complete the process of revision and writing-up during the second semester.
In the second semester, when drafting the remaining main chapters of the dissertation, you will follow the practice established in the first semester of submitting the drafts to your supervisor for comments and advice. You should take advantage of the period between the first semester and the start of the second semester to write a draft of a chapter, and you should plan to have produced first drafts of all the main chapters by at least four weeks before the submission date (also allowing for any vacation periods when staff may not be available).
If, however, you are taking the dissertation module over one semester, you will need to adjust this time frame accordingly.
Writing the introduction
The introduction to your dissertation should explain to the reader what you are going to investigate. It should describe the dissertation's topic and scope. You should explain your reasons for investigating your chosen topic by referring to the appropriate literature. Having completed the work on the main substance of your dissertation, you should have a much clearer idea of its nature and scope than you did when you wrote your preliminary abstract or proposal. The introduction to your dissertation should explain to the reader what you are going to investigate. It should describe the dissertation's topic and scope. You should explain your reasons for investigating your chosen topic by referring to the appropriate literature.
It is important, however, to write the introduction as though you are setting out on a process of investigation. You need to emphasise the exploratory nature of your work. You should also avoid anticipating the discoveries and conclusions that you have made in the course of your investigations. So, you might simply say that you have identified certain common features in the relevant literature, or a particular issue that it deals with, and that your dissertation will examine the literature closely in order to demonstrate the relationships between treatments of the issue in the sample texts. When you have completed the main body of the work and your tutor has commented on your complete draft, you may well wish to revisit the introduction to take into account your findings and your tutor's comments on their significance.
Writing a literature review
Your dissertation is a substantial piece of written work that ideally should conform to a number of academic conventions. One of the most important of these academic conventions is the literature review. In short, the literature review is a discussion or 'review' of secondary literature that is of general and central relevance to the particular area under investigation.
Often students ask how long a literature review should be. This is a difficult question given that the total length of your dissertation might be anything from five to twelve thousand words. Obviously your supervisor may be able to give some indication of the approximate length of your literature review. However, don't become pre-occupied with word length, the main thing is that your literature review should capture the general and specific aspects of the literature of your subject.
Why is a literature review necessary?
The literature review is an important device in your dissertation as it performs a number of related functions:
- It demonstrates to whoever reads the dissertation that the author of the work has read widely and is aware of the range of debates that have taken place within the given field. It provides the proof that you have more than a good grasp of the breadth and depth of the topic of the dissertation - your dissertation gives you the opportunity to show off how clever you are! The literature review is a great place to start, because it should demonstrate that you know what you are talking about because you have read everything that is relevant to your dissertation.
- It can provide the rationale for the research question in the study. This can be done by highlighting specific gaps in the literature – questions that have not been answered (or even asked), and areas of research that have not been conducted within your chosen field. In this way the literature review can provide a justification of your own research.
- It can allow you to build on work that has already been conducted. For example you might adopt a similar methodological or theoretical approach in your work to one that exists within the literature, yet place your actual emphasis elsewhere. In this way you are building on work that has already been conducted by adopting similar strategies and concepts, yet focusing the question on something that interests you.
- It helps to define the broad context of your study, placing your work within a well defined academic tradition. Poor dissertations often fail to relate to broader debates within the academic community. They may have a well defined research question, yet without placing this question in the appropriate context, it can lose its significance. The literature review therefore can add weight to your question by framing it within broader debates within the academic community.
How do I 'do' a literature review?
Writing a literature review is not as simple as at first it may seem. What follows is a step by step guide on how to go about conducting and presenting your literature review.
1. Generate a list of references
The first stage of your literature review is to collect a list of literature that is relevant to your study. You have already seen in the section Help with Finding Literature and Research how you can get a list of useful references.
2. Make sense of your reading
Once you have a list of references for your dissertation, you now have to access and read this material. This is time consuming because you will be reading a large amount of material. Once you start you might find that some literature is of little relevance to your study. This is something that many researchers and dissertation students go through and is often a necessary part of the process. It is better to read something that is not central to your dissertation than miss something that might be an important and relevant contribution to the field.
Make notes about the central themes and arguments of the book, chapter or article. These notes can then be incorporated into the finished version of your literature review. Try and get a sense of the theoretical perspective of the author, this will be of use when you organise and present your literature review. Also, emphasise the way in which the piece of literature you are reading seeks to set itself apart from other literature. Importantly, start to think critically about the piece you are reading; ask: what is this person trying to say and why? How is it different from the way others have dealt with this issue? This critical component is very important as it demonstrates that you are engaging with relevant literature in an appropriate manner and that you can discriminate between different perspectives and approaches that exist within your chosen field.
3. Organisation and presentation
Once you have generated a large number of notes around your reading you might start to feel overwhelmed by the literature. In terms of the organisation and presentation of your literature review, it is worth dividing your review into two main areas: general reading and literature that is of central importance. You will also need to further divide the literature into specific areas relevant to your study for e.g. theories and concepts; policy analysis; empirical studies and so-on. What follows are some general guidelines on how you might do this.
It will be clear that some of the reading you have done is of more relevance than others. It is important, however, that you do not discard the less relevant work; instead this can form the broad background of your discussion of the more relevant literature within your field. For example you may mention different authors that have dealt with a question related to your field but may not be central to it. Highlight these in broad terms, state how these works have impacted on your particular area. You need not go into great detail about these more general works, but by highlighting these works you are demonstrating your awareness of the scope and limits of your study and how it touches upon other areas of study.
Once you have discussed the range of literature that is only of general interest to your study, you can then go into more detail on the literature that more sharply focuses on the questions that are of interest to you. Devote more detail to these particular works as they are more important to your topic. Indeed they may highlight the gap in the literature that exists that you seek to fill; they may provide the basis on which you seek to build, or they might be works which require some critique from your particular perspective.
When you have divided your literature review into general works and works of central importance, you should also further divide the literature into sub-categories. By further dividing your literature in this way, you are adding more organisation into your literature review by providing specific sub-categories of relevant literature.
For example in the general works section of your literature review, you might want one sub-heading on the main theoretical debates, one on empirical studies and maybe one on policy. With reference to the more central literature, you could organise this more important reading in a similar way. For example, if relevant, you could have a section on competing theoretical perspectives; a section on the main findings of important empirical studies; a section on policy implementation and its impacts. See the table below.
Breakdown of Literature Review
Detailed analysis of theoretical and conceptual debates
If appropriate you might also want to divide your sub-headings further.
One final note on the more central literature is that this more focused analysis can also serve to bring your empirical or theoretical work into sharper focus. In this sense you are prefacing your work and how it relates to other academic studies by your discussion of it in your literature review. One thing to remember however is that just because you talk about an author's work in your literature review, doesn't mean you never mention it again in your dissertation. In the discussion section of your study you will necessarily relate your findings to those central studies that you have highlighted in your literature review.
When you have written your literature review, this is not the end of the process. Throughout your dissertation process, you will come across literature that is of relevance to your area of study, do not ignore this material, you can always add more literature to your review as you come across it.
Finally, make sure that you keep a record of all your references, even the ones that have been of little use. This will help you organise your bibliography and reference list. You may even need to go back and look over something that you looked at earlier in your studies that may have more relevance than you first thought.
Writing the Methods section
This must clearly identify the epistemological (i.e. your stance on what should pass as acceptable knowledge) basis of the study and demonstrate a good working knowledge of the methods to be employed. It should include good coverage of the process of the fieldwork and indicate how the analysis was undertaken. As well as covering the ethical issues it should also contain an element of reflection on the research process.
Writing the Findings section
Many students confuse findings with discussion and it is important to keep them separate. The findings are often presented in charts and tables (even from qualitative data). Verbatim references to participants' comments are particularly helpful. It is important to ensure that findings are truly analysed, rather than described. Finding ways of cross relating the findings is therefore important.
Writing the Discussion
Traditionally, the discussion links findings to the literature presented in the literature review.
There are arguments for extending the coverage of literature in this section but only in exceptional circumstances. The discussion should be precisely that: an opportunity to raise the different voices of interest in the research question and to explore the findings in the light of the literature and different perspectives within it.
Writing the Conclusion
The main chapters of your dissertation will have focused on particular topics or issues. For example, each chapter may have focused discussion on a particular text. Alternatively, you may have structured your work so that each chapter is devoted to discussion of a particular aspect of your overall topic. The conclusion offers the opportunity to review your work as a whole, to identify the points of comparison and contrast the various texts you have examined, and to show that, in the process of your study, you have developed a more precise, critical understanding of the way they deal with your topic. This is also an appropriate place for you to point to the limitations of small-scale research of this kind and to indicate possible avenues for researchers to address the issues in the future.
Before you submit the dissertation, you should check that the final version of the title is an accurate reflection of what the dissertation is about and, if not, change the title.
The process of preparing your dissertation for submission begins with a careful final drafting of all your chapters and sections. Here you have the opportunity:
- To ensure that your argument is clearly developed from sentence to sentence and from paragraph to paragraph.
- To check the accuracy of your spelling and punctuation - do not rely on spellchecker software!
- To make sure that your sentences are well constructed and that you are expressing yourself clearly, precisely and fluently.
- To ensure that you have not contradicted or repeated yourself.
You need to check that your quotations from and references to both primary and secondary texts are clearly and consistently identified according to the conventions of the HARVARD referencing systems (or whatever system your department requires). There is more about this in the section on Plagiarism. You will check that your bibliography is properly presented and contains all sources cited throughout your work.
Guidelines on presentation
You should refer to the guidance provided by your own department, but in general you should think about the following:
- Your dissertation must normally be typed or word-processed on A4 paper.
- Your own text must be double-spaced.
- Indented quotations must be single-spaced.
- The pages of the dissertation must be numbered.
- It must have a title page.
- It must have a table of contents.
Submitting the completed dissertation
The completed dissertation should be submitted in the form set out by your department. If there are no formal styles, submit the dissertation in a format that makes it easy for the examiner to handle - avoid complicated spring-back or ring-backed files.
- Abstracts of sections and of the dissertation as a whole will help to focus your writing and direct your thoughts.
- Set yourself deadlines for drafting chapters. Agree these with your supervisor if you think that will motivate you.
- Depending on the rules and regulations of your own institution, give your supervisor drafts of chapters as you write them, and try to be responsive to criticism. Revise chapters as soon as you get them back.
- Read through each completed chapter. Check that your argument flows logically.
- Even if you write the introduction last, write it as if you have yet to find the answers to your questions. Don't give away the ending!
- Finally, check that the title refers accurately to the finished dissertation. If it does not - change the title!
- Follow some basic rules:
- Type or word-process your dissertation - do not write it out.
- Use double line spacing for your own writing.
- Use single line spacing for indented quotations (and footnote these!)
- Number the pages.
- Include a title page and a table of contents.
- Remember to adhere to any format stipulated by your department.
- IMPORTANT: Check how many copies your department requires.
- How long is your dissertation going to be?
- Have you mapped out the content of each of your chapters?
- In what order will the content flow best?
- Is your evaluation doing its job? Likewise, is your conclusion suitably conclusive?
- Is the order of the chapters logical and coherent, will it make sense to the reader?
- Are the beginning, middle and end clear?
- Do your sentences and paragraphs make sense?
- Do you know someone else who can proof-read the dissertation for you?
- Have you allowed enough time to proof-read properly?
BRYMAN, A. (2004). Social Research Methods. 2nd ed. Oxford, Oxford University Press, chapter 26 - Doing a research project
DENSCOMBE, M. (2003). The Good Research Guide for Small-scale Social Research Projects. Maidenhead, Oxford University Press, part III
HART, C. (2000). Doing a Literature Review: Releasing the Social Science Imagination. London, Sage
Writing up your dissertation:
Conducting a literature review:
1. © Dr Malcolm Todd (Leeds Met), Ian Baker (Sheffield Hallam University), Professor Chris Winch (NCU), Andy Pilkington (NCU), Dr John Steel (University of Sheffield), Dr Anne Hollows (Sheffield Hallam University)