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Writing a Literature Review in Social Sciences

Checklist for Selecting or Refining a Topic

1) Understand how to SELECT topic ideas

2) Use effective strategies to REFINE topic ideas 

Click here for 2.1 Step-by-step Instructions (w/ screenshots) on How to Find Review Articles

1) SELECT Topic Ideas

  • If for a class assignment,
    • Read the assignment instruction carefully: 
      • Requirements (scope, # of references, nature of the sources, publication style such as APA, etc.) 
      • Focus (theories, empirical findings, methodologies, etc.)
    • Examine textbooks
      • To find keywords for your topic, consult Indexes at the end of the books 
    • Examine journal articles (class readings) 
      • Browse the reference list of an article and chain the citations 
  • Consider personal interests 
  • If you know the top scholarly journals in your field, skim titles and abstracts of the latest issues of the journals
  • Browse "Annual Reviews" publications in the field, if available
  • Read theses or dissertations in the area of your interest
    • From your department 
    • From other institutions 
  • Browse conference opportunities in your field. Read their "Call for Papers" or "Call for Proposals" to catch up hot topics in the field.
    • E.g., 
      • CFP List: An academic call for papers database in Humanities and Social Sciences 
      • NBER Project on Economic Dimensions of Personalized and Precision Medicine 
  • Check out research funding organizations in social sciences to find hot topics in the field. A list of the recent awards (or the funded research) is a good source to find out the hot topics in the field. 
  • Brainstorm a list of possible topics

After selecting a topic, if your assignment requires a working thesis, try to formulate a preliminary working thesis. This will serve as a roadmap to your search. 


2) REFINE Topic Ideas

Once you conduct an initial search of the literature, you might want to refine your topic. Two common ways are: 

  • Narrow down the topic by adding delimitations or more keywords/concepts

    •  For a limited period of time (i.e. the past 10 years of literature only)  
      • E.g., Treisman, D. (2007). What have we learned about the causes of corruption from ten years of cross-national empirical research?. Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci.10, 211-244.  

    • For a specific group only
      • E.g.,
        "Adolescent Depression"  -->  "Depression among HIV-affected youth" 

    • Adding extra search terms /topics
      • E.g.,
        "Voter turnout" --> "Negative campaign and voter turnout " 

  • Expand the topic by getting rid of the delimitations or using broader concepts 

    • E.g.,
      "Instructional effectiveness of games for teaching grammar"  --> "Effectiveness of games for language teaching"

After refining your topic, revise a working thesis accordingly.

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