Short answer: No, it’s not possible to write a thesis without a literature review. The literature review is an essential part of your thesis, and it helps you to situate your research within the existing body of knowledge on your topic. Plus, without a literature review, your supervisor is likely to tell you to go back and do one!Understand that doing research is entering a debate
When you sit down to write a literature review, the first thing to do is to understand that you are entering a certain conversation. In order to contribute to that conversation, you need to know what has already been said – in other words, you need to do a literature review.
That means that, when you start your literature review, you need to have a clear sense of the focus of your work and what gap in the existing research you are aiming to fill with your paper. Only then can you start looking for material and begin reading with a purpose in mind (and do empirical research).
A literature review can come in different flavors, depending on your field and research questions. In some disciplines (e.g., history, philosophy, religious studies), a literature review is primarily a summary of what scholars have said about a particular topic. In other disciplines (e.g., education, psychology, nursing), a literature review is primarily a synthesis of what scholars have said about a particular topic. There are also other types of literature reviews that go beyond summarizing and synthesizing previous research (e.g., historiographic, methodological, analytic). No matter what type of literature review you are writing, the process will generally follow these steps:
1. Choose a topic
2. Search the literature
3. Read and take notes on the literature
4. Organize your notes
5. Write the literature review<
At step 2, an important distinction is whether you do this in a systematic or non-systematic (“narrative”) fashion. If you are doing a proper literature review that should stand on its own, then a full-fledged systematic review is the type of review of your choice. If you need the literature review just to provide a base for an empirical study, a narrative review is usually acceptable and more than enough.
Science is a dialoge, a debate. If you can pull of a theatrical monologue, that’s fine, but it is not science /research. You cannot do science by only talking (doing research) and without listening (reading papers).
But if you very strongly feel that you need to go that way, your best bet is a very exploratory research question.
Also, I m certainly not a strong reader myself. I think it’s about finding personalized strategies that work for you. It definitely gets easier when climbing the career ladder. But also in the beginning, you can seek collaborators that are well read.
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Dominik E. Froehlich, PhD
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