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POL 399: Interest Groups in U.S. Politics: Starting Your Literature Review

Let's Review

Sources Do Different Things

For your lit review, you'll focus exclusively on scholarly sources. Still, it may be worth thinking about the different things scholarly sources do. This is how some folks sort that out - the BEAM method.

Background - you won't cite Wikipedia in your review, obvs, but scholars often provide good background in the intro to their books before they launch into an argument.

Exhibit - also known as primary sources - data sets, documents, eyewitness accounts. Your sources will use these, but you won't include this kind of source in your lit review.

Argument - most of the sources you cite will be making an argument and they will use exhibits (qualitative or quantitative research, primary source documents) to do so. You'll be sorting through and grouping arguments as you identify the gap your research question will fill.

Method - in political science, this is more likely to be called "theory." These sources lay out a way of thinking about things. You might find a lot of your sources drawing on a particular theory. Maybe including one of those foundational works will make sense as you tell the story of scholarship on your topic.

What's New About a Literature Review?

You've done SO much research. You can bang out a paper in your sleep. You know all about plagiarism. You've probably annotated a million bibliographies. Find fifteen sources and write about them? No problem.

A literature review is different. You're not just finding and describing sources on a particular topic, you're doing two things:

  • Telling a story about what scholars know and argue about when it comes to your research question.
  • Making an argument that you will be contributing something new to that story. You're setting the stage for your original research by showing what we already know or are debating, and what we still don't know. That's the gap your thesis will fill.

Three pieces of advice:

  • This story is about what scholars think, and in particular what political scientists think. In the lit review, you won't be talking about what politicians or journalists or pundits have said. It's all about the scholarship.
  • This story is not a list of things you found. It's a narrative, a story, an argument that the story isn't finished yet and you're going to write the next chapter.
  • This story is about people and their ideas, not about sources. Think about finding the people who are doing this work and figure out the dynamics of the conversations they are having. Who is aligned? Who is bringing something original to the table? Who's spoiling for a fight? Who is the sleepy old dude in the corner who everybody defers to even though he's 150 years old? When does the conversation get heated? Where is the opportunity for you to say "actually, I have some thoughts about this" where you can say something new while also tying it to things people have already said?

Finding the Literature

Scholars publish books, book chapters, articles in scholarly journals, and they give papers at conferences that are in some cases published (and sometimes are called "proceedings"). These are some good places to start poking around for research on your question. There is no single place where you'll find everything. Each option has its own frustrations, but they all offer some ways to focus your search results, in particular:

  • by intended audience (scholarly or peer-reviewed is what you'll be aiming for)
  • by date (you might want to start with the most recent research and use the citation network to locate significant earlier works)

It's easy to sort articles from scholarly journals from a newspapers or magazines, though there are things in scholarly journals (e.g. book reviews) that are not peer-reviewed research and don't belong in your lit review. It's trickier with books. University presses publish popular books to pay the bills, and other presses publish work by scholars that might have a wider audience than just scholars but are not watered down. There's no filter other than your own judgment to separate scholarly books from one that doesn't pass the test of scholarship. Look for books that are

  • written by an academic expert (or experts for edited collections)
  • includes new research, interpretation, or theory
  • explicit about sources and methods

Here are databases to begin your exploration.

Work the Network

You can't do a literature review without paying attention to citations. These are the map of how ideas flow and intersect. It's the LinkedIn of people involved in the conversation about your research question. Look for repetition - who does everyone cite? You probably need to check them out. Look for patterns. People who ask this kind of question use this theorist's work all. the. time. Etc.

The trouble is most citations are broken links. You have to do some work to get those sources. Interpret the form it was published as and then:

  • if it's a book, check the library catalog for the title of the book and/or author
  • if it's a part of a book (there's no volume or date but there are page numbers) check the library catalog for the book title (not chapter title).
  • if it's an article in a journal, see if we have access to the journal by typing the journal name into "do we have this journal?"
  • if it's not available, go to My Library Account, log in, and click on your name and ILL requests in the upper right corner.

library links on main page


See who has cited a work

As you scan references in books and articles, you're looking into the past. You can also see who has cited a work since it was published using Google Scholar (which sometimes also gives you a list of cited works in the Social Sciences Citation Index).

google scholar example


Scholar Stalking

As you dig in, you'll find certain scholars are the experts. Look for a CV (resume) online or a profile of them at their workplace. They may have lists of publications and presentations that are helpful for your research. Maybe they've had a grant from a foundation that supports work related to their agenda. See if they have a public presence on Twitter or Facebook. You'd be surprised how many academics use Twitter to talk about their work with each other, usually with a hearty dose of sarcasm and/or personal reactions to events. 


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Julie Gilbert
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