Writing a critical literature review is not about finding fault with the work of other scholars, but involves accurate reporting of the central findings and arguments of other scholars in your discipline, and offering an assessment about the extent to which existing research and scholarship addresses your research problem or focus. When supervisors say that a literature review is ‘descriptive’ or ‘not critical’, they usually mean that the review has not been adequately situated within the discipline.
A descriptive literature review, as opposed to a critical literature review, provides information about the topic area. A critical literature review provides a systematic report of previous research in the discipline or sub-discipline.
Example of descriptive writing
Elder abuse can take many forms including physical, emotional, financial and social. Within contemporary Western societies, attitudes towards the elderly are influenced by negative social stereotypes. Poor funding in aged care settings has also put pressure on the quality of care for elderly residents.
This is descriptive writing because it describes the problem or context. It is unclear whether the statements provided are offered as general knowledge, or whether they represent findings emerging from empirical research within the discipline.
Example of critical writing in a literature review
Early research on elder abuse focused on understanding its different forms, with a range of studies pointing to its physical and emotional (eg Brown, 1980, Taylor, 1990), financial (eg Edwards, 1998; Singh, 2001) and social (eg Banks 2010; Nguyen 2013) dimensions. More recently, research has focused on the social and institutional conditions which exacerbate the prevalence of elder abuse. For instance, Lee’s survey of social attitudes towards the elderly (2010) finds a direct link between negative stereotyping of the aged and elder abuse. Do’s (2012) study of pre and post 1980s aged care homes suggests that funding and resource presures are contributing factors in elder abuse within the institutional care setting.
This example is critical writing in the literature review because it reports key findings in the field of research and key shifts in the direction of research in the field.
There’s nothing written on my topic so what can I write about?
One misconception about literature review writing is that we should only write about literature directly relevant to the immediate topic of the research. There is often little written on the focus of the research precisely because the topic focus or approach is new. This is as it should be, and is nothing to worry about. As outlined above, the literature review entails writing about research findings and arguments not directly related to your own research topic, but which lead up to and introduce your research focus.
The literature review must demonstrate that the proposed research is novel and important. This is accomplished by contrasting your own research focus with other approaches in the field. Do not be afraid to review research and scholarship which is generally relevant, but not immediately related to your topic area. Think about ways in which the academic literature in your field can be used to fram, lead up to, or introduce your research.