Writing a Literature Review
The Talmud is one of the world's great ongoing literature reviews. As shown by the copy of the Babylonian Talmud at right, this magnum opus begins with the Mishnah, the first written codification of Oral Rabbinic Law based on Torah. It continues with the Gemara, a collection of writing that includes the earliest commentaries on the Mishnah, additional interpretations of Torah, and important teachings on ethics, philosophy, and communal custom. Woven around and through the Mishnah and Gemara, thousands of Rabbinic scholars have added their comments, creating a vast, multiauthorial, intertextual conversation on Jewish thought and worship.
While not as lovely or poetic as the Talmud, today's literature review still serves a similar ancient purpose: to engage in a conversation with those who have thought before us. The creation of a literature review is a major step in the research process. It is not a method of research, it is a procedure, something every scholar must do in order to establish a point of departure for her work. In writing a literature review, the researcher characterizes existing scholarship on a topic, develops a position with respect to that scholarship, and carves out a space wherein she can contribute new knowledge.
Literature reviews vary in scope and complexity, from brief paragraphs included in a journal article, to a lengthy section preceding the substantive chapters of a thesis or dissertation. But they all have the same goal: to build the intellectual scaffolding for research. We all stand on ground prepared by others, and the literature review is where we acknowledge this.