November 23, 2020

Literature Review vs. Annotated Bibliography: What’s the Difference?

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Literature reviews are a central feature of sociological research, and it is vital for students of sociology to learn how to read and eventually write them. Too often, students tasked with writing a literature review often turn in something in between a true review of the literature and an annotated bibliography.

An annotated bibliography is basically a fleshed-out works cited page. To get started, you list the full citations of previous publications related to your topic. This list should be formatted according to whichever style you have been instructed to use. Below each citation, include a brief, 2-3 sentence synopsis.

A literature review is not just an annotated bibliography converted from a list into paragraphs, nor is It only a synopsis of related research. It is not simply a series of “reviews” of the strengths and the weaknesses of previous research. And yet it might contain all of these elements when broken down.

So what is a literature review? The goal of a literature review is to connect your study—or proposed study—to the existing body of theory and research on your topic. It is meant to demonstrate your awareness of the theoretical conversation taking place in the discipline, and show how your study is a part of this ongoing scholarly discussion.

Here are some steps to take to get ready to write a literature review:

  1. Choose a topic you are interested in learning more about. (Your topic might be very general to start off, but your goal is to create a specific and testable research question.)
  2. Read sociological research on your topic of interest.
    1. Construct an annotated bibliography; list related research and briefly summarize each one.
    2. Look for recurring author citations; do several studies cite the same theories? If so, this tells you that this is an important “conversation” within this area of study and you should look at this source too. (Also, see the works cited for each study you read to find other related research on your topic.)
    3. What kinds of research questions do sociologists ask about this topic? This will tell you how this topic is addressed within sociology to help you make sure that your potential study is sociological and not part of another discipline.
    4. What methods have others used?
    5. What have been the results of research on this topic?
    6. Consider the answers to b-e to create your own research question.
  3. Create a clear, specific, answerable research question. Make sure your question is part of the sociological conversation you learned about in step 2.
  4. How is your question related to a concept, or concepts you found in previous research?
  5. What have similar studies found as the result of their research? Explain why these studies are important to know about for your study.
  6. What couldn’t researchers learn from previous research, based on the limitations of their methods? How have the methods other researchers used shape your decision to use a particular method?
  7. How do their findings inform you about how to conduct your study?
  8. If you have done a very thorough search, you can discuss any gaps that you found. In other words, what is currently missing from the body of research on this issue?

As you can see, a literature review is not just a list of other studies;  it is a comprehensive analysis that should always be connected to your proposed study. Your goal is to look for patterns and themes in previous research and demonstrate your familiarity with this area of study.

If you’re writing a literature review and it reads more like a summary of previous studies, then you need to keep working on it. Tell the reader why you are sharing these examples with them in the context of your study, or main themes that exist within this area of study.

Give specific details, and always—always—cite all of your sources specifically. Your paper might be filled with citations, and that’s okay. It’s actually the goal of your literature review to demonstrate that you are not just making stuff up, and that others have come before you and done the work upon which yours will build.


Thanks for sharing such an informational article which will a great help to the students.

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