Chapter Summary

Political scientists investigate diverse phenomena limited only by whether they are significant to our understanding of politics and government, observable, and political.

  • Research questions may focus on the political behavior of individuals, groups, institutions, or political jurisdictions.
  • Research questions, if they dwell on discrete or narrow factual issues, may limit the significance of a research project.
  • In most cases research questions focus on the relationship—that is, the association, dependence, or covariance of the values of one variable with the values of another. In others, research questions may be descriptive, factual, or normative.

Research questions may originate from personal (drawn from your own life experiences), scholarly (academic journal articles or books), or nonscholarly (journalistic accounts) sources.

Although personal and nonscholarly sources are good places to find potential research topics, you can satisfy the scientific requirement of relevance to the discipline only by surveying the scholarly literature. Relying on scholarly sources rather than nonscholarly ones will improve the quality of a literature review.

A literature review has many complementary purposes including learning about what others have and have not investigated, developing general explanations for observed variations in a behavior or a phenomenon, identifying potential relationships between concepts, identifying researchable hypotheses, learning how others have defined and measured key concepts, identifying data, developing alternative research designs, and discovering how a research project is related to the work of others.

The decision of how many books and articles to include in a literature review depends on the purpose and scope of the project as well as available resources—there is no standard number of citations that represents a good literature review.

You can begin to narrow the field of potential sources in many ways including the use of electronic databases such as Web of Science, Google Scholar, or JSTOR. These databases will allow you to locate sources quickly and efficiently and often offer full text electronic documents depending on your library’s institutional subscriptions.

You can search electronic databases most effectively by searching for keywords or by searching for work that cited relevant sources you have already found. Reading book reviews in scholarly journals will help you quickly identify books that may be of use.

You can also use general search engines such as Google to find popular sources on the internet or a more specific search tool such as LexisNexus.

Once you have collected sources you can begin writing the literature review section in a paper. The key to organizing and writing an effective literature review is to focus on concepts, ideas, and methods shared across the literature. By identifying and writing about commonalities and differences across several works, your literature review will be both more interesting and of higher quality because it integrates previous research along conceptual and methodological lines and provides a more effective organization for the researcher to explain the base of knowledge and how the current project fits into that literature.

The chapter includes an annotated literature review as an example.