On theoretical and methodological literature reviews

My blog post, A Start-to-Finish Literature Review Workflow, is probably the most viewed thing on my website. It’s a great overview, especially for people new to writing lit reviews. I’m pretty proud of it.

But it’s incomplete.

I’ve had plans for a long time now to write a more advanced lit review tips post, as well as one with some variations and modifications on that workflow.

But today I need to talk about what’s on my mind right now, which is that theoretical and methodological lit reviews are really different from lit reviews that describe a body of research on a particular topic.

The general workflow still works for these kinds of lit reviews, but once you get to that concept mapping stage, things get a little different. So here are a few things you might consider for these types of lit reviews.

Theoretical Lit Reviews

  • Trace the development of the theory. Who first articulated it? How has it changed over time? Who refined it? Who expanded it? What did they add?
  • Synthesize the development of the theory. As people refined and expanded it, how did those refinements and expansions interact with the theory as originally proposed? Can you pull it all together into a new statement that incorporates all those different things?
  • Discuss application of the theory. (This might be beyond the scope of your literature review, but it might not.) Who has applied the theory? How did they apply it? Did their application of the theory lead them to reconsider anything about the theory?

Methodological Lit Reviews

  • Identify the origins of the methodology. What type of thing was it created to study? What problem was it trying to solve?
  • Declare key characteristics of the methodology as it has been implemented over time. Not only what it was created to study, but how writing about it has contributed to our understanding of what the methodology is. For example, Hine (2000) discusses ethnography as involving travel (whether physical or experiential), participationobservation, the ethnographer as someone with the authority to describe the "field" where the ethnography has been undertaken, the participant/informant as a member of the culture being studied, and the reader of the ethnography as someone who has neither the participant nor ethnographer's experience and thus is gaining understanding of the culture through the ethnographer's account.
  • Describe methodological challenges that have arisen as people have implemented the methodology, and, where possible, how people have navigated those challenges.

I’m working on a literature review about affinity space ethnography/connective ethnography right now, and as I try to organize my thoughts, thinking about these things is helping me make sense of the tons of writing there is on ethnography more broadly.


Hine, C. (2000). Virtual Ethnography. SAGE.

Kimberly Hirsh @kimberlyhirsh