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How to Write a Literature Review and other guidelines for doing Sociological Research

What is a Literature Review?

A literature review is an account of published research by accredited scholars and researchers. In your review you will show the relevance of previously published research to your topic and explain how your research fits in to the larger field of study. You are not trying to list all the material published. You are trying to identify relevant information, and synthesize and evaluate it according to the guiding concepts of your research question.

Helpful Hints: Organize your literature review by theme (not by author). Synthesize ideas into a coherent summary of what is and is not known. Unify the literature review around our thesis- relate your thesis to others’ ideas and identify controversies in the literature. Formulate questions for further research.

What is the Purpose of a Literature Review?

A literature review has several purposes: to broaden the reader’s understanding of he topic, to frame your research in the context of a larger body of work, and to emphasize the current state of research indicating what research has been accomplished to date. Ultimately, however, the main purpose of a literature review is to describe and evaluate a specific area of research as it relates to your thesis.

Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Literature Review

  • Do I have a specific thesis, problem, or research question? What type of literature review am I conducting? Am I interested in theory, methods, policy, etc.?
  • What types of publications (i.e., journals, books, etc.) should I use?
  • How good are my information seeking skills? Is my topic narrow enough to exclude irrelevant and time-consuming tangents?
  • Have I critically analyzed the literature I review?
  • Have I noted exceptions and contradictions? Will the reader find my literature review relevant, informative, and comprehendible?

Steps Before Writing Your Literature Review:

  • Choose a topic of interest. Tentatively formulate a research question.
  • Research your topic in the library and find sources that relate directly to your topic. Theoretical articles and research studies are both acceptable.
  • Read your articles and focus upon the reviews, theory sections, findings, discussions, and conclusions. Look for the main themes, theoretical concepts, hypotheses, and finds as they relate to your topic.

Steps for Writing Your Literature Review:

Write a one-paragraph introduction that addresses the reasons why you chose this topic of interest.

Explain what your literature has discovered and theorized about the topic. When writing your review, do not simply summarize each article separately: synthesize the information according to themes and concepts. Include the main idea of each article and the secondary ideas that relate to your topic, while excluding tangents and unrelated ideas. Be sure to relate the ideas to your research question.


The survey designer must develop clear, unambiguous, and simple questions.

  • Are the words in the question and is the meaning of the question simple and clear?

Avoid overly complex and unfamiliar words; avoid jargon. Consider the characteristics of your sample and ask whether respondents will fully understand the questions.

  • Could the question have an alternative meaning to some respondents?

Some members of particular ethnic groups or occupational groups use words differently from conventional use.

  • Word questions so that respondents are not likely to give false information to make themselves look more socially desirable or prestigious.

Example: avoid asking respondents to give an exact income; rather, ask them to place themselves within grouped categories (income brackets).

  • Avoid negative questions.

Example: AIDS cannot be prevented through safe sex practices? Agree or Disagree.

  • Avoid double-barreled questions.

Example: Do you like San Diego and San Francisco?

  • Check for bias in your questions.

Example: Do you agree with Chief Justice…? If welfare is bankrupting the state, do you think the state should eliminate the program?

  • Should the questions be posed directly or indirectly?

Example: Do you know people who have tried marijuana? Then it is easier to ask the respondent.

Validity: the degree to which an indicator accurately measures a concept.

Reliability: the likelihood that a particular measure would produce the same results if the measurement were repeated.

Doing Sociological Research

I. How is sociology scientific?

Scientific Method

  • Observe: Observe some aspect of the universe
  • Theorize: Invent a theory that is consistent with what you have observed
  • Hypothesize: Use the theory to make predictions
  • Test: Test those predictions by experiments or further observation
  • Modify: Modify your theory in light of the results
  • Repeat: Repeat steps 3, 4, and 5 until your theory and evidence are consistent

Sociological research is empirical because it is based on the scientific study of observed evidence-what we can see, what we can sense- mediated by the use of scientific instruments and scientific methods.

  • Sociological research is based on empirical observation
  • The observation must be accurate and precise
  • Measures are developed to record observations accurately
  • Observations must be measured repeatedly and variations must be recorded
  • Recorded measures are classified into variables- the building blocks of research

  • Empirical Research: Think of science not as a body of knowledge but as an activity that seeks to find answers. Scientific activity relies upon observable evidence that can be humanly discerned. Evidence must be systematically recoded an intelligibly presented in order to be considered scientific.
  • Logical and Rational: Science depends upon a logical and rational system of rules for thinking and using language; precision in recording and clarity in presentation are important.
  • Explain the Social World” The purpose of research is to seek to know something better, more deeply, and more clearly by applying rational, logical rules of analysis to empirical evidence gathered through observation (41, 2).

II. What do Sociologists Study?

  • Social Things: anything that has social meaning
  • Data: things people say, do, think, and create.

III. Are There Social Laws?

Human beings are a part of nature, and they can be subject to regularities that can be isolated, understood, and predicted. Social patterns exist in all human societies, cultures, and social groups.

IV. How are causal relationships defined?

Variables: researchers look for the strength of association between two variables

Dependent Variable (Y): the variable in an experiment or survey that is affected, or subject to being affected, by the independent variable.

Independent Variable (X): the variable in an experiment or survey that exercises an effect n the dependent variable.

Natural Sciences: Causation: X causes Y

But because human behavior is unpredictable, sociologists use correlation to explain the relationships among variables.

Social Scientists: Correlation: when X occurs, Y is likely to occur

Conditions for Causation:

  •  A change in the IV must precede a change in the DV.
  • High correlation between he IV and the DV.
  • Competing variables must be shown to have little influence on the DV.

V. What do we find?

We make generalizations about individuals and groups based on recognizable patterns.

Generalization: a conclusion drawn from specific data that is applicable to a broader population.

Common ways of generalizing include using numerical values such as mean, median, and mode.

Stereotype: an oversimplified set of beliefs about the members of a social group that is used to categorize individuals of that group.

What is the difference between a generalization and a stereotype?

Stereotype                                             Generalization

Judgmental                                           Descriptive

No exceptions                                      Exceptions

All-powerful category                        One of many

Rejects new evidence                         Changes with evidence

Not carefully created                          Carefully created

Not interested in cause                      Interested in cause

Sociology: a Reaction to Stereotypes

  • Sociologists try hard not to be judgmental about categories of people.
  • Categories and generalizations in sociology are rarely- if ever- absolute.
  • Categorizations in sociology are not assumed to be all-important for understanding the individual.
  • Sociology tries to create categories and generalizations through carefully gathered evidence.
  • Generalizations in sociology are tentative and subject to change because new evidence is constantly being examined.
  • Scientists do not categorize as an end in itself.

VI. Can Sociologists be Objective?

Sociologists try to be objective in the research process, but since complete objectivity is impossible, the task for researchers is to be aware of bias and try to overcome it.

Max Weber

Value-free investigation: an attempt to carefully and objectively observe the world as it is rather than how we would like it to be.

VII. What are the Steps in the Research Process?

  • Define the Problem (develop a research question)
  • Review the Literature (what has already been “said”)
  • Formulate a Hypothesis (make predictions)
  • Select a Research Design (make a plan)
  • Carry Out the Research  (gather the data)
  • Interpret Your Results (analyze the data)
  • Report the Research Findings

VIII. What Research Methods do Sociologists Commonly Use?

  • Survey
  • Participant Observation
  • Experiment

Other Ethical Concerns

1. Tampering with Results; Plagiarism

The discipline of sociology, its reputation and the trust of the public in science must be protected from falsified data, improper analysis, and misinterpretation

The incorporation of someone else’s work without proper acknowledgement is illegal.

2. Right to Privacy vs. Public Right to Know

By focusing upon the protection of individual rights, are we confining social research to the study of those who have nothing to hide or to those who lack power to refuse to be studied?

The risk of doing research must be weighted in relation to the benefits.

3. Means for Ensuring the Protection of Subjects

  • Anonymity: is the assurance that subjects’ identities will not be disclosed in any way.
  • Confidentiality: is the promise to keep the identities of the subjects known only to the researcher and perhaps selected members of his/her staff and to minimize in any available way the possible exposure to the subject’s identity.
  • Informed Consent: is achieved if the subject knows what the study is, understands his or her level of confidentiality in the study, comprehends the objectives of the study, and agrees to cooperate.