January 25, 2021

Learning from the Literature: How to Find Categories and Themes

Author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Are you writing a literature review? If you are doing this for the first time, you might be struggling with how to write about the various sources you have found for your project.

First, recall that a literature review is a detailed discussion of academic research related to a specific research question. The two words can be confusing; by literature, we primarily mean the scholarly books and journal articles that have been published on your topic. These sources should peer-reviewed, which means that scholars in the field have determined that the research was of sufficient rigor to merit publication. The sources you include in the literature review should mostly come from your academic discipline—in this case, sociological journals and books by sociologists.

In this context, “literature” does not include works of fiction, news stories, blogs, social media posts, or other non-scholarly work. It might include government reports, such as reports based on Census data, reports from nonpartisan think tanks, such as the Pew Research Center or university-based research centers like the Stanford Center on Poverty & Inequality.

The next word—review—also needs clarification. We’re not talking about a review in the traditional sense, like a book review or movie review, where you decide whether something is good or bad and weigh its relative merits. That’s what the peer-review process is about; see this post for more information.

It would be more accurate to call a literature review a literature analysis, since what you will actually be doing is analyzing and synthesizing previous publications and connecting them to your own study.

 To get started:

  1. Find related research in a specific journal

I recommend starting by perusing the table of contents in multiple issues of a single journal in sociology (or the academic field you are interested in). This might sound tedious, and like looking for a needle in a haystack, but it will give you a sense of how the topic you are interested in is studied within sociology.

For instance, if you are interested in an issue related to gender, peruse multiple issues of the journal Gender & Society to see how previous studies have framed their research questions. Remember, research within an academic discipline is part of an ongoing conversation, and you’ll need to find out what the conversation has been about in order to write about it in your literature review, and to join in by conducting your own research.

  1. Locate key studies and theoretical discussions

Within this focused journal, see if there are citations of specific authors, studies, or theoretical concepts that keep coming up in articles related to your topic. Look at the works cited pages of related studies too. Make a note of them and look them up. They are probably important sources that should be part of your literature review.

Also see if there are studies cited that are related to your topic, even if they are not cited often. This can be a great starting point for finding other sources in other journals and for identifying important books.

After learning more about how this issue has been studied and discussed within sociology, refine your research question to make sure that it is sufficiently sociological. This will help you conduct a wider journal and book search using more specific search terms.

Notice that I did not suggest that you start by doing a Google search, which is how many of us begin looking for information in our daily lives. Sociological research is more specific, and a general internet search casts a very wide net which is likely to lead you off course. Even starting a search using your library’s search engine will probably make the process of getting started more difficult that starting with a specific journal. Your library’s search engine is most useful once you have narrowed down your topic and search terms.

  1. Read the abstract and introduction of each related article

There is no need to read the whole article just yet. Start by perusing the basic points of each related article and look for the basics: what method did they use? What were their research findings? What other studies do they cite? What theoretical concepts do they discuss?

Create a spreadsheet where you keep this information in one place to easily compare several sources. It might look something like this:


Other studies cited

Concepts mentioned

Method of this study

Findings of this study

Source 1


Source 2


Source 3


How many articles or books should you examine? There is no ideal number; the real goal is to have a sense of the previous research in this area. Finding at least a dozen studies is a good starting point if you are an undergraduate writing a literature review for the first time. This will give you a sense of some similarities and differences between sources that you can discuss.

  1. Use your spreadsheet to identify themes

Once you have gathered information about several studies, it’s time to organize your ideas and identify patterns.

Is there one particular study that seems to have inspired others? Are there specific theoretical concepts that several studies reference and build upon? That’s a theme. How about groups of studies using one particular method? That’s a theme too. Are there several studies with similar findings? That also might be a pattern worth noting.

Your job here is to think of these studies as pieces of a large puzzle, a puzzle which you will put together for your readers to create a picture that makes previous research on this issue clear. You might just be putting together a corner of the puzzle, but it is a start.

  1. Tell the story

Once you have found some patterns, the pieces of the puzzle need to be explained to your readers. Explain the patterns that you found and note how various studies can be grouped together to better understand how research on this area has unfolded so far.

Do not just rattle off a list. Imagine if you had a pile of puzzle pieces and you just put them in a row haphazardly; it would be very confusing and hard to make any sense of unless put into some sort of logical order. Literature reviews are analyses of groups of studies, not just summaries of a bunch of articles or books that you found.

Think about the themes and patterns that you found. Maybe you noticed that something was missing, or something you consider to be an important theme that did not materialize. This could be a significant gap in the literature and possibly a good justification for a future study.

A literature review is important to demonstrate that you are familiar with previous research within an area of study. Identifying patterns and themes will help you figure out how to be part of this ongoing scholarly conversation.


I hope you continue to have such quality articles to share with everyone! I believe a lot of people will be like to read this article!

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