December 21, 2020

What are Gaps in the Literature?

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

I’m sure you’re familiar with the word “gap.” People might take a “gap year” in their education, maybe between high school and college or between college and graduate school. A gap year is essentially a fancy way of saying you are doing something else and pausing your education.

There might be a gap between a window and a wall, which means that there is space between the two objects, and maybe a draft or a leak depending on the weather.

We might consider a more abstract definition of a gap, such as the gap between expectations and reality, which can produce social unrest, according to one popular theory. The gap between our own personal expectations and reality can shape the way we make sense of our relationships and achievements.

If a gap is a break, or space between thing 1 and thing 2, what is a gap in the literature?

I get this question quite a bit from students, especially when they are tasked with finding said gaps and aren’t exactly sure where to begin. Simply put, a “gap in the literature” describes something missing within a body of research published on a particular topic. (Literature refers to scholarly work published in journal articles, books, and government reports on a subject.)

Finding gaps in the literature requires us to do three things:

  1. Search for published scholarly work on our specific research question.
  2. Once we find books and articles, identify categories of previous studies (more on this in a future post).
  3. Based on these categories of studies, determine what might still be missing, or at least what has not been studied as thoroughly.

Let’s think of this in terms of something that we can all easily understand: dessert. Imagine that there is research on multiple categories of desserts; some studies focus on ice creams, some focus on cakes, others on cookies, and still others on pies and donuts. (When you search for scholarly work, you will need create your own categories based on other researchers’ findings. I will discuss this more in a future post.)

Perhaps you are interested in qualitative studies of ice cream (I consider this to be one of my life-long pursuits). Maybe there are many published studies about certain flavors but not others. There is ample research, say, in varieties of chocolate ice cream, but very few on rarer flavors, such as elderberry or huckleberry.

Voila, you have discovered a gap in the literature! It’s as simple as that. You can highlight this gap as part of the reason that your study of huckleberry ice cream sandwiches is important to conduct to fill a gap within the literature on ice cream.

But sometimes if something is missing in the literature it is not necessarily a gap. Let’s say you wanted to study popsicles, and in your review of the research on ice cream you find no studies on popsicles. Have you discovered a gap?

This would work only if you could make a convincing case that popsicles are a type of ice cream and therefore belong in this category.

Sometimes we are looking in the wrong place for previous research on our topic. This happens fairly often with students who are new to sociology, especially if their research question is not sociological. They might see that there is very little in previous research because it is an area of study covered in a different discipline.

Imagine if while literature on lots of different ice creams exist, in your search you find nothing on lecithin, an emulsifier that is a common ingredient in ice cream. Hopefully you are thinking that we are straying off-topic from the qualitative experience of eating ice cream, unless you wanted to compare the experience of eating ice cream with and without lecithin.

But if within the field of “dessert studies” there are no comparisons between ingredients, you would have the burden of arguing why this should be part of the larger scholarly conversation about ice cream. If ingredient comparisons are a well-established part of another scholarly field, you will have a harder time making the case.

Back to sociology (but we’ll take our desserts with us). Let’s say that you are interested in studying the use of food in cultural practices, a subject that  clearly can be connected with many studies in anthropology and religion. To identify gaps in the sociological literature, you would need to make the case that your topic is connected to existing studies and theoretical discussions within sociology.

You could connect your study with research on food and economic inequality, as several sociologists have done. For example, sociologist Priya Fielding-Singh found her research that food has “symbolic value” which shapes differences in diets based on socio-economic status. Likewise, Sarah Bowen, Joslyn Brenton, and Sinikka Elliott found in their research that eating processed food, rather than home cooked is linked to socio-economic status. As this NPR story on their study highlights, not everyone has the time and resources (such as equipment and kitchen gadgets) to prepare food from scratch.

Can you connect your food study to these or others, even if your topic is relatively unique? If so, you have found a gap and connected it to the existing literature. Congratulations!

Coming soon: how do you categorize the existing literature? How do you write about the existing literature in relation to your own research?


Thanks for sharing your precious time to create this post, It so informative and the content makes the post more interesting. really appreciated.

The area that has not yet been explored or is under-explored.

The gap, also considered the missing piece or pieces in the research literature, is the area that has not yet been explored or is under-explored. This could be a population or sample (size, type, location, etc.), research method, data collection and/or analysis, or other research variables or conditions.

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