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How to structure and write a Thematic Literature Review

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How to structure and write a Thematic Literature Review

In the previous article, you looked at how the literature review, wherever it is found, whether in the introduction or in a separate section, might be organised chronologically. Perhaps a more common way to organise the literature review is to group the literature as you see it – that is, to organise and discuss the literature by theme.

Advantages of doing a thematic literature review 

  • Taking a thematic approach from an early point in your research allows you to see how much literature you have identified for each issue. You can then assess how much more you might need to read. 
  • Grouping your literature thematically can help determine the following aspects of your literature review:
  • Taking this evaluative approach allows you more space to assert your own voice and authority, and to engage more intimately with the literature from the beginning. You’ll get to take a more active role in identifying the connections between existing studies and research on your topic.
  • By building connections between themes to your research project, you’ll help your reader gain a better, broader overview of the relevant literature.

Deciding on a thematic literature review

One way to do decide going thematic with your literature review is to categorise your bibliography at an early stage into groups, each of which deals with a particular issue in a similar way.

  • So, you might look at a topic by discipline, by epistemology, by theoretical approach or argument or by methodology.
  • Alternatively, you might look at the topic by issue or by level (e.g. selecting literature that focuses on individuals at a local / institutional level, rather than national or international). 

Note: There are innumerable ways of viewing the literature from a thematic standpoint and there is no one correct method to write or structure a thematic literature review. It is more important to consider what approaches would be more useful to your research project and what would help you to best address your research questions/hypotheses.

Structuring and writing a thematic literature review

Here are some points to keep in mind when organising and writing your literature review thematically.

A. Beginning the review

Reviewing the literature thematically by groups offers you a flexible starting point. Where you begin can impact how you present the rest of the literature. 

B. Being evaluative

The thematic approach allows you to identify the strengths and weaknesses of a theme within your specific research. This means that it may be less descriptive than taking a more chronological approach, and would likely be more evaluative or analytical

C. Establishing your credentials

This review is an important element in establishing your academic credentials, especially at the PhD level. In journal articles, though, you need to keep it as concise as possible, and be selective in choosing the most relevant and appropriate literature to contextualise your specific research.

D. Ending the review

You will probably want to end with the literature closest to your research. The last part may need to go into greater detail if it covers the literature that is the most relevant to your own topic.

Thematic literature review: Example

Below is the first section to an article which clearly breaks up the first part of the literature review into three broad themes (structure, social construction and historical evolution), providing the most prominent names associated with each one. (Note the highlighted text.)

Over the last 20 years, a large number of studies on academic writing have been devoted to the research article, in particular, its structure, social construction and historical evolution. A number of these studies have concerned themselves with the overall organization of various parts of the research article, such as the introduction (e.g. Swales, 1981, Swales, 1990, Swales and Najjar, 1987), the results sections (Brett, 1994, Thompson, 1993), discussions (Hopkins & Dudley-Evans, 1988) and even the abstracts that accompany the research articles (Salager-Meyer, 1990, Salager-Meyer, 1992). Various lexico-grammatical features of the research article (RA) have also been explored, ranging from tense choice to citation practices. Beyond the textual structure of this genre, research has also focused on the historical development of the research article (Bazerman, 1988, Atkinson, 1993, Salager-Meyer, 1999, Vande Kopple, 1998) and the social construction of this genre (Myers, 1990).


Read previous (second) in series: How to structure and write a Chronological Literature Review


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