Literature reviews can come in all shapes and sizes

Some less common ideas of what your literature review project could be turned into

How do you envision a literature review paper? Typically, first thing people imagine is a narrative that identifies the core theories and methods used in the field and summarizes the main findings of the literature, using qualitative approach to the analysis.

While this is indeed a traditional type of a literature review, it is not the only way it may look like. There are other ways how you can make an interesting contribution based on existing literature, or the data that comes from the existing literature – and I suggest the papers you review are to be treated as data

Indeed, literature reviews can come in different shapes and sizes. In this blog post I’d like to share with you a few examples I find interesting and inspiring.

Meta-analysis … for both quantitative and qualitative research(ers)

Meta-analysis is often seen as a quantitative empirical study. I think it actually is a type of a literature review study - because it uses previously published studies as a dataset. So if your field of study is mature enough to offer lots of previous empirical work, and you love quantitative analysis, this could be your form of a literature review. For example, Pichler (2012) identified three different competing theoretical models in their field (reactions to performance appraisal), and asked a provocative question: which of them really works? To answer this question, they went back to existent empirical studies on the topic and, using them as a dataset, ran a meta-analysis to test which of three models fits best with the past data.

I often hear that meta-analytical approach works only for quantitative data, and hence qualitative researchers rule this option out for themselves. However, if we talk about an approach rather than specific analytical procedures - you can do meta-level analysis even if your dataset consists of qualitative studies. Habersang and Reihlen (in press) offer a framework that will guide you through the core decisions and methodological choices of doing a qualitative meta-study.

Habersang et al. (2019) provide an illustration of such a study as they integrate previously published single-case studies to develop a process model of organizational failure. They describe in detail their methodological approach, so their paper can serve as a template if you would like to do a qualitative meta-analysis - and you can find more examples of such studies reviewed in Habersang and Reihlen (in press).

Leverage your qualitative findings with some quantitative methods of analysis

You do not have to be a meta-analysis wizard to integrate some quantitative methods of analysis into your literature review paper - and potentially enhance the rigor of your conclusions. You can combine qualitative and quantitative methods of data analysis in one paper, and the quantitative aspect does not have to be too sophisticated.

For example, O’Higgins et al. (2021) first did a more traditional qualitative content analysis of the existing literature, to identify a list of challenges professional services firms face in their internationalization process, as well as characteristics of these firms. Then, they used Pearson’s chi-squared (χ²) goodness of fit test to explore whether the challenges they found in the literature correlate with some of the firm’s characteristics.


One of the recommendations that you hear when you consider writing a literature review on a specific topic, is to check if someone has already done this before. Indeed, if the topic is very mature, it is likely that it has been reviewed already – and maybe several times. In this situation, it is challenging to carve out a space for contribution of yet one more literature review. However, if you already found a few published literature reviews on your topic, it should not necessarily stop you from working on another one.

For inspiration, check a paper by Jiang & Messersmith (2018). Their field – strategic human resource management - is very mature, and well-saturated with literature reviews. Indeed, Jiang & Messersmith (2018) were able to identify 68 review articles about strategic HRM – 64 conceptual reviews and 4 meta-analyses (thus supporting my argument that meta-analysis is a type of literature review). So, instead of doing another “usual” literature review, they did a review of literature reviews in this field. They call it a “meta-review”.

Big-data analysis and visual mapping

Another approach you could use for reviewing the fields that are mature is to apply bibliometric methods and visual tools for mapping the field. Markoulli et al. (2017) provide an example of such an approach that enabled them to analyze over 12000 articles in human resource management field. As they put it, it allowed them to see the “forest” as a whole, instead of individual “trees”. An interesting twist to their analysis is that they contrast the dominant themes in academic scholarship with the themes that dominate the practitioner-oriented outlet in the same discipline.

I hope these examples give you some new ideas of what you could turn your literature review project into. If you have some other examples of less-common approaches to a literature review paper, I’d be grateful if you could share.


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