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A 6-Step Guide to Writing a Thematic Literature Review | Examples

A 6-Step Guide to Writing a Thematic Literature Review | Examples

What is a thematic literature review?

A thematic literature review is a type of review of literature that focuses on synthesizing existing research on a specific topic or research question by organizing and presenting it according to key themes or concepts. Unlike a chronological literature review, a thematic literature review does not necessarily follow a chronological order but rather groups and discusses relevant literature based on recurring themes or issues.

When conducting a thematic literature review for a research paper or research project, you need to read and analyze numerous research articles and academic research on your research topic. Thematically Literature Review involves a thorough literature search to identify relevant literature. Your thematic review might structure your literature review by discussing different ways to structure your literature, such as by theme.

For example, you could have sections exploring research from the 90’s on topic x, research from the 2000s, and so on, organized thematically rather than chronologically. An example of a thematic literature review methodology would be to divide your review of literature into sections based on key themes, theories, or debates within the existing research on your specific topic.

Four Common Literature Review Structures

A thematic literature review is a type of literature review that focuses on synthesizing existing literature based on key themes or topics related to your specific research question. When reviewing literature for an academic research paper, organizing your literature review thematically can be an effective approach.

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Four common structures for a thematic literature review include:

1. Theoretical Literature Review – This review needs to analyze existing literature through the lens of different theories related to your research.

2. Methodological Literature Review – This type of literature review organizes sources based on the research methodologies employed in the studies you are reviewing.

3. Chronological Literature Review – While not purely thematic, this structure reviews literature in chronological order, often highlighting how themes have emerged over time.

4. Conceptual Literature Review – This thematic approach groups literature review sections around key concepts, variables or constructs central to your research focus.

Structuring your literature review thematically helps synthesize diverse sources and provides a focused analysis of existing research through a specific conceptual framework. The thematic structure of your literature review can shape how you critically analyze and discuss the existing academic research in your field.

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6 steps on how to structure and write a Thematic Literature Review

Writing a thematic literature review is a multi-step process that requires careful planning, organization, and synthesis of existing research on a particular topic. Here is a 6-step guide to help you craft an effective thematic literature review. This thematic literature review outline can guide you to write an impressive thematic literature review and gain more knowledge on how to do a thematic literature review:

Step 1: Define your research area and identify key themes
Start by clearly defining the area of research you are exploring. Then, as you survey the nature of the literature available, look for recurring themes or patterns across the body of literature. These themes will form the organizing framework for your review.

Step 2: Conduct a comprehensive literature search
Cast a wide net in searching for relevant published research on your topic. Even for niche areas, there may be hundreds or even thousands of articles, books, and other sources to consider. To get a good survey of the existing knowledge in the field, you can’t just read only one book or study.

Step 3: Critically analyze and group sources by theme  
As you review the literature, critically analyze each source and consider what themes or issues connect the various research studies together. Don’t just present one summary after another. Instead, group the literature by theme, pointing out how different sources present one or different aspects of each core theme important to your research.

Step 4: Identify gaps, conflicts, and trends
A good thematic “literature review” also highlights any gaps or conflicts in the existing research, as well as potential future research directions. Look for areas of the field that are missing representation, theoretical or methodological limitations, and overarching trends in how this body of literature has evolved over time.

Step 5: Create an organizational structure  
Now that you’ve grouped sources by theme, create an organizational method to focus and logically sequence this thematic section of your paper. Your outline might follow a general-to-specific progression or movement from broader to more specialized themes.

Step 6: Write and revise with examples and synthesis
The body of your thematic literature review should not just summarize individual sources one after another. Instead, use examples from the literature to illustrate key themes, highlight agreements and disagreements between studies, and synthesize how this collective body of research informs or progresses our understanding of the topic. Reviews also provide context on the methodologies used and how they have evolved.

Thematic literature review example on “The Role of Social Media in Political Movements and Protests” might first present a general overview of themes like social attitudes, legal policies, and technical practices surrounding dissection over time. 

It could then have sections analyzing sources relating to the theme of “Changing Social Attitudes Towards Dissection” – discussing how a progression in perspectives was revealed through research on changing dissection practices from ancient civilizations through the Renaissance. 

Another section on thematic literature review sample “Legal and Ethical Frameworks” might synthesize how literature from the 1800s differs from modern sources in framing the ethical implications of dissection.

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In the example of thematic literature review, the “Technical Processes” section could explore how primary sources like medical journals depict the evolution of dissection tools and procedures, contrasted with disagreements in the literature on best practices.

By thematically interweaving examples and analysis from across this body of literature, the review pieces together a cohesive narrative around how existing knowledge in this field has progressed in relation to the important themes and issues central to your research focus.

The thematic structure provides a focused perspective on the literature, highlighting convergences, divergences, trends, and gaps in a way that a simplistic chronological or alphabetical review does not allow. This synthesized analysis informs recommendations for future research and helps position your study’s unique contributions to advancing this area of research.

Strategies for writing the literature review

When writing a thematic literature review, there are several effective strategies to consider for organizing and presenting your synthesis of the existing research on a particular topic:

1. Survey and Identify Themes
Before drafting, thoroughly survey the nature of the literature available and identify the key themes or issues that emerge across the various sources. These themes will dictate the organization of your review.

2. Use Themes as Your Structure
Rather than simply summarizing studies chronologically, a thematic approach allows you to group and analyze the literature by these overarching themes. You could order a review of literature with sections devoted to each core concept or methodological approach prevalent across the sources.

3. Provide Conceptual Analysis 
A strong thematic “literature review” goes beyond just describing individual studies. It should provide in-depth analysis of how different researchers have approached or conceptualized each theme, highlighting agreements, contradictions, and gaps within the existing knowledge base.

4. Emphasize Trends and Progressions
Look for how the literature has evolved over time. Your review might follow a general-to-specific progression, first giving an overview of broader themes before focusing sections on more specialized sub-themes or nuanced aspects of the research.

5. Use Synthesis and Examples
Don’t just present one summary after another. Synthesize the literature within each thematic section, using specific examples and citations to illustrate the key ideas, methodologies, findings, and conclusions related to that theme.

6. Identify Conflicts and Limitations
An important role of a literature review is highlighting conflicts between different studies as well as potential limitations or weaknesses in the existing research methods and theories employed.

7. Recommend Future Directions
The final section could explore opportunities for future research based on the trends and gaps you identified across the literature reviewed. This positions your own study’s relevance.

8. Consider Alternative Structures
While thematic is common, you could also order a review of literature on biological studies chronologically if that progression revealed a distinct change in practices over time. Or combine approaches, using chronological mini-sections within broader thematic categories.

9. Maintain Coherent Focus
Whichever structure you choose, maintaining a coherent, focused analysis around the core themes most relevant to your topic or research questions is crucial. The literature review should systematically build up the context and foundational knowledge needed.

By thoughtfully surveying the literature through a thematic lens and crafting an organizational structure to match, your literature review will provide insightful conceptual analysis of the existing research in a way that highlights contributions, shortcomings, and future possibilities for scholarship on the issue at hand.

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Frequently Asked Questions about Thematic Literature Review

How to do a thematic analysis for a literature review?

To do a thematic analysis for a thematic literature review, start by identifying the key recurring themes, concepts, or issues prevalent across the existing research on your topic. Critically read and analyze each source, looking for connections between studies in how they approach these core themes. Then, organize your literature review sections around these overarching themes, synthesizing and providing in-depth conceptual analysis of how various sources frame, agree, disagree or evolve ideas relating to each thematic area.

What is the thematic review method?

The thematic review method involves structuring and presenting your literature review organized by key themes rather than chronologically. After surveying the literature, you identify the central themes, theories, or methodological approaches that are explored across different research studies. You then devote sections of your thematic literature review to analyzing and synthesizing the sources based on each specific theme, using examples to illustrate perspectives, findings, gaps and progressions surrounding that particular theme.

What is the difference between chronological and thematic literature review?

A chronological literature review summarizes sources in order of their publication date, while a thematic literature review groups and analyzes research based on recurring conceptual themes rather than timeline. Chronological traces how understanding evolved over time, whereas thematic provides an in-depth examination organized into sections devoted to each core theme, issue, theory or methodology addressed across the literature on your topic, regardless of chronology.

How do you write a theme for a literature review example?

To write an example theme section for a thematic literature review, first identify one core theme that multiple studies relate to. Give an overview explaining the significance of this theme to your research topic. Then synthesize what various sources have to say about this theme – highlight key findings, perspectives, agreements/disagreements, strengths/weaknesses, and gaps. Use multiple cited examples from different literature sources to illustrate the range of ideas and evidence surrounding that thematic area.

Dr. Robertson Prime, Research Fellow
Dr. Robertson Prime, Research Fellow
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