Are Literature Reviews Always Necessary?

Successful dissertations place their study in the context of the existent research. It is not enough to assert that you have an interesting question, a rich data set no one else has mined or a powerful method of analyzing your data.  Why?

Your committee will inevitably ask the question: how does your study fit into the context of all the research which has already examined your question in some fashion or another? You can always respond with the answer:

“There is no existent research on this question. Therefore, a review of the literature is not needed.”

In rare cases, this answer may fly with your committee. Success with this response is however  highly unlikely. Why?

  1. There is very likely research on the question – it is just not framed in the way you are planning to proceed.
  2. Committee members always look to see if a review of the literature is included in your dissertation (either Chapter 2 or Chapter 3). If  it is missing,  the student is told to go back to the drawing board.

Learning how to frame and write a review of the literature is part of the training in any Ph.D. program. To complete your program, committee members like to see a demonstration that you  know how to do a review of the literature.

Researchers may well have not used your constructs, your variables or your data.  But there is very likely a stream of literature that has considered your question and/or tested your hypothesis. Perhaps this research is theoretical. Perhaps it is filled with cases studies. But such a literature exists.

The challenge is to define the boundaries of the literature that falls into the backyard of your dissertation. Once you have placed boundaries on your own study, the literature becomes easier to identify and the literature review chapter much easier to write.

Without a clear idea of how your study fits in the context of existent research, literature reviews can consume hundreds of pages – but contribute little to a true understanding of how your question fits in the context of all the other work which has been published,

Robert Rodgers, Ph.D.

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