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Deciding between the Chronological and Thematic approaches to a Literature Review

Depending on the discipline that your research is located in and your specific research project, there are broadly two different ways in which you can approach organising, reading for and writing your literature review: either chronologically or thematically. This article explores some of the factors to consider as you begin to plan your literature review.

Note: This is not to say that you must decide on and take only one approach exclusively for the whole of the review. You may start a review thematically, but organise and review the literature within a theme in a chronological fashion, as illustrated in the examples towards the end.

Purpose of conducting a literature review

Regardless of the approach, either chronological or thematic, both have the same purpose – to contextualise and identify the need for your specific research. As such, the literature review is never purely descriptive, but should ultimately be analytical and argumentative. 

Whichever approach you take, your literature review needs to demonstrate that you have a clear understanding of the existing relevant literature in your field. You seek to acknowledge what has been accomplished, but also to identify gaps, problems or unanswered questions within these studies. Ultimately, you aim to show how your research relates to the existing body of work. In other words, this section explains how you will address those gaps or questions and how this study will contribute to and extend that knowledge.

Defining key terms and concepts for your literature review

A useful way to start your literature review is to reflect upon how a specific term or concept has been understood and how the definition has developed. You can then proceed as follows.

  1. Explain why and how you wish to understand, frame and engage with that term/concept for your research.
  2. Review the literature on the topic based on that definition or understanding of a key term.
  3. Assess exactly what approaches you can take to that topic – whether chronologically or thematically, theoretically and/or methodologically. 

Deciding between the approaches

Taking the chronological approach

Where there have been clear developments sequentially, over a period of time, then it makes sense to track these developments chronologically. You establish and express your academic credibility here through your identification of the most significant and relevant authors/studies at each stage. Your readers will note whom you see as being worthy of mention and whose work you are using to contextualise your own. 

Going with the thematic approach

With this approach, you are examining and discussing existing literature/studies not by their chronological development but by the principal themes, debates, perspectives or approaches that they address. This thematic approach offers you the advantage of determining and structuring the order of themes to fit the narrative and development of your research. It also helps you to more clearly identify the links between disparate literatures, as well as to play a more actively engaged role in evaluating the literature you’ve selected. 


In this extract taken from an article on writing introductions to research articles, you can see both types of organisation being used. (Note the highlighted parts.) The first paragraph of the article is a broad thematic review of the research on journal articles. The second paragraph from this article focuses on a (mostly) chronological review but organised within themes.

Broadly thematic approach

Over the last 20 years, a large number of studies on academic writing have been devoted to the research article, in particular, its structure, social construction and historical evolution. A number of these studies have concerned themselves with the overall organization of various parts of the research article, such as the introduction (e.g. Swales, 1981, Swales, 1990, Swales and Najjar, 1987), the results sections (Brett, 1994, Thompson, 1993), discussions (Hopkins & Dudley-Evans, 1988) and even the abstracts that accompany the research articles (Salager-Meyer, 1990, Salager-Meyer, 1992). Various lexico-grammatical features of the research article (RA) have also been explored, ranging from tense choice to citation practices. Beyond the textual structure of this genre, research has also focused on the historical development of the research article (Bazerman, 1988, Atkinson, 1993, Salager-Meyer, 1999, Vande Kopple, 1998) and the social construction of this genre (Myers, 1990).

Mostly chronological approach

One aspect of the RA [research article] that has perhaps been most studied is the introduction. Since Swales’ (Swales, 1981, Swales, 1990) seminal work on the move structure of RA introductions, there has been considerable interest in applying the proposed model to other sets of texts. Crookes (1986), for example, through further analysis, has pointed to the cyclical nature of introductions. Jacoby (1987) has investigated in greater detail the use of references in introductions. Scholars have also used Swales’ model to examine texts written in different languages (such as Malay and Swedish) and cultures and have concluded that RA introductions are influenced by linguistic and cultural differences (Fredrickson and swales, 1994, Ahmad, 1997). There has been less research, however, on the variations in RA introductions across disciplines despite the growing interest in disciplinary differences in academic writing. Some recent studies have focused on disciplinary variation in RAs as a whole. Posteguillo’s (1999) study of RAs in computer science and Nwogu’s (1997) study of medical science nicely illustrate variations in the whole genre across disciplines and underscores the need for further research on disciplinary variation. However, there have been only a few studies which have focused primarily on the introduction. Swales and Najjar (1987) examined RAs from educational psychology and physics focusing on the presence of principal findings in Move 3 of introductions. A much more recent study by Anthony (1999) of RA introductions from engineering reveals that Swales’ Create-A-Research-Space (CARS) model does not account for some important features of the introduction, such as the presence of definitions of terms, exemplifications of difficult concepts, and evaluation of the research presented.

End note

Whichever approach you decide to take, return frequently to the original premise of your study to keep yourself focused on exactly what you are trying to find out and what you need to know from existing literature to do that effectively. This will help you to be more selective with the literature, studies and authors you include in your own study.


Read next (second) in series: How to structure and write a Chronological Literature Review


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