Literature Review in History Research

Cite this article: Ashafa, A. M. (2021). “Literature Review in History Research”. Sokoto Journal of History Vol. 10. Pp. 12-18.
A.M. Ashafa


History is a study of change in human society, about knowledge of human activities and society in the past, its acquisition and spread for the benefit of humanity. It is a mirror in which the present looks at the past. Generally, knowledge comes in two forms: firstly, in the form of a revelation or inspiration from God and secondly, through human efforts. While the former is generally regarded as dogmatic and immutable associated with the divine (often regarded too as unscientific) the latter is dynamic and is being guided by certain principles or methods, called research. The research a student is required to embark upon as a postgraduate is a conscious/deliberate effort one is putting to come up with something new to augment the quest of knowledge to fulfill part of the intellectual tradition and requirements for the award of a degree in view in any University you have registered. The paper dwells on seven (7) related items. The first is what research is; the second is what literature review is; the third discusses the purpose of literature review in history research; the fourth talks on the type of literature review; the fifth looks at some challenges in doing literature review; the sixth gives some recommendations to overcome the challenges and the last is the conclusion.

Keywords:  History, Sources, Literature review, Methodology, Historical inquiry

DOI: 10.36349/sokotojh.2021.v10i01.002

What is Research?

There has been
no universally accepted definition of what research is because journalists,
marketers, medical doctors and a
host of other professionals conduct research. So, it has been defined in different ways and manners depending on
the idiosyncrasies of the one making the definition. No matter how one would like to see or define it, research is
accepted to be a process of arriving at a new
knowledge. It is the process by which a dependable solution to an identified
problem using knowledge-based,
planned and systematic data collection, data analysis and or interpretation is arrived at in order to enable man to
relate effectively and efficiently with his environment (human and physical), by overcoming those
problems or challenges. It is an organized inquiry carried out to search for new information/knowledge or to
verify old or existing ones in order to solve a problem since no human society is problem-free. Man has always believed
that every problem has a solution and
the struggle to solving a problem from a knowledge-based position is what is
generally called research. Therefore,
research is the process by which new and dependable knowledge is acquired to enhance intellectual and creative
activities in the form of ideas and invention and innovation to solving
human problems from a meaningful,
logical, verifiable and objective conclusion/findings.

History research
is thus a careful and organized study/collection and analysis of data/investigation of the truth also called fact of any
subject matter of the past in order to discover new facts or to obtain additional valuable information
about the past in order to solve particular or general human problems.

Research has
many components towards completion and making it standard and literature review
is one of such components of the
research process. While some researchers are not feeling at ease on how to
go about this intellectual tradition, some find the process interesting and enjoyable.


What is Literature Review?

review here refers to a survey of literature such as books, chapter or journal
articles, write-ups, and other
sources that help a researcher to address the important issues, theories, and concepts of his/her research. It
principally examines secondary sources
relevant to your research area and aims to providing a critical evaluation and summary of
them for your research questions.

review is an intellectual tradition that involves the systematic
identification, location, and analysis
of documents containing information
related to the research problem with the
aim at determining what has already
been done that relates to your topic the knowledge of which not only prevents
you from unintentionally duplicating other person‘s
research, but also gives you the understanding and the insight you need
to place your topic within a logical frame. These documents include books, journals and book chapter
articles, monographs, thesis and dissertations, and other research reports. Simply put, literature
review tells you what has been done and what needs to be done. Previous studies can provide the rationale for your
research hypothesis, and indications of what to be done can help you justify the significance of your study.

A careful and
thorough literature review is essential when you write about research at any
level. A thesis is a substantially lengthy piece of academic research
that is accepted only when it substantially meet certain requirements.
One of the important requirements is the literature review. The literature review is a critical
discussion of ‗general‘ and ‗specialized‘, yet, relevant literature to that aspect of the area and topic of the
research. It is a key component of scholarly write-ups that calls for a high degree of academic
maturity from researchers. It requires a lot of time considerably to get acquainted
with what others have written in relation to the area and topic. This is so because as a researcher, a student through the
literature review should be able to demonstrate and convince the committee of supervisors and readers
that (s)he has exhaustively explored the research topic. Lack of literature review tells that the researcher has neglected the basics of the research. In historical research, literature review is
highly significant as the primary tool to evaluate, juxtapose and critique
the existing body of scholarship.

A good
literature review must carry four basic items, namely: the central argument of
the literature being reviewed, must
establish how it relates with the research that makes the review necessary, a critique section where the gaps exists
between the literature being reviewed and the proposed research, and lastly laying bare the gaps and what it would
be filled with to make it a whole.

The question
here is, is it all kind of literature that is reviewed?
The answer is no. Rather,
the student goes to review
only related literature because it allows you to discover research strategies and specific data collection approaches
that have or have not been productive in investigations of topics similar to yours.1 This
information will help you avoid other researchers‘ mistakes and profit from their experiences as you may discover
approaches and procedures that you previously had not thought of or considered. This leads us to the
next issue: the rationale
behind literature review.

Purpose of Literature Review in Qualitative Research

One   major   contribution   of 
 Collingwood‘s   philosophy   of 

―rapprochement of philosophy and history, which according
to Leo Strauss was an attempt to not

Minogue, K. Method in Intellectual  History‖ in  J. Tully
 (ed.),  Meaning and Context: Quentin Skinner and His Critics, (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988) 176–193.


only establish
the autonomy and specificity of philosophy of history as a discipline,2
but to also establish the philosophical
foundation of historical inquiry as a privileged mode of understanding reality.3 The Oxford
contextualists, which Collingwood was a major founder, contributed into a major shift in historical methodology
aimed at rescuing history of political thought from bad history of what Collingwood
described as ―historical myopia urging for a critical review of classical texts where there is simply no hope of
seeking the point of studying the history of ideas in the attempt to learn directly from the classic
authors by focusing
on their attempted
answers to supposedly timeless questions.4 Rather,
in addition to understanding his author, the reader according
to Collingwood, must criticize him. This call was for the historian
to assess on whether the past authors were right, and what they said is true. This is what we may call ―evaluation, ―criticism‖,

 judgment.‖  Thus,  ―our
 truth  question
predecessors, which helps us to reject the common-sense theory of history
because it uses what he calls the
―scissors and paste‖ approach that connects the reports of authorities about
past events without critical

Let it be
noted as preliminary to doing a literature
as follows:

1.      Research begins from what is
known to what is unknown. Literature review thus surveys what researches have been done in the past on a particular topic; it also appraises, encapsulates, compares and contrasts, and
even correlates various scholarly books, research articles, and other relevant sources
that are directly
related to your current research.
Therefore, given the fundamental nature of a review, your research will
not be considered seriously without
such a review.

2.      A good literature review
demonstrates to the supervisory committee that the student has substantially read a large amount of
literature as a proof that the student is aware of the plethora of researches related to the proposed research topic in
theory and methodology. Familiarity
with previous research also facilitates your interpretation of your study
results, which can be discussed in
terms of whether and how they agree with previous findings. In case the results contradict previous
findings, you can explain the differences between your study and the others, providing a rationale for the discrepancy.
Therefore, it proves to the supervisory
committee that the student has a deep understanding of the published materials related
to the topic and is ready to
use them to make different findings/conclusion.

3.      A well presented literature
review is the best spokesperson for your work. As a researcher, you venture out to do a research as you
wish to contribute to the existing scholarship and fill certain knowledge gaps that your predecessors couldn't.
Literature review thus, helps you identify
such gaps, thereby justifying your research questions
and your investigations.

4.      A good literature review
must be made in a manner as to convince the supervisory team of the student‘s ability
to communicate his/her
understanding of the literature and its relationship to the proposed research.


Strauss, L., On Collingwoods Philosophy of History The Review of Metaphysics, Vol. 5, No. 4, 1952, pp. 559- 586.

Collingwood, R.G., An Autobiography, Oxford: Clarendon Press
2002 (1939) pp. 77.

Collingwood, R.G., An Essay on Philosophical Method‟ (edited by J. Connelly
and G. D‘oro) Oxford: Clarendon
Press 2005.



5.      A good literature review has
the ability to support the originality and relevance for the research problem in the following manner:

ð  By identifying specific gaps
in the literature. That is, the student identifies research questions
that have not been answered and problems that have not been solved.

ð  By identifying gaps in the
existing literature, the student can justify the originality of the proposed dissertation research, which can be either an extension of research that has been published or a modification of
existing methodology or theory that can be used to perform the an M.A.
or PhD dissertation.

ð  The literature review you do
as part of your Thesis/Dissertation serves as a supporting proof for your arguments and claims. It is
an authentic precedent for your arguments and
theses, and also acts as a solid background for your investigation. A
comprehensive review, in other words,
is a springboard your scholarly write-up can use to propel itself into the field of study.

6.      In making a critique of
literature in the review, the researcher is emphasizing or stressing the originality of the Thesis, so that
without such a review, a team of supervisors would hardly be convinced of the originality of the Thesis/Dissertation.

7.      It connects the researcher
and his readers. This is in a manner that they can trust that you have done not only your homework, but they
can give you credit for your due diligence and
that you know what you are talking about. And the more books, articles,
and other sources you can list make
the review, the more trustworthy your scholarship and expertise will be. And depending on whether it is a master‘s
Thesis or a doctoral dissertation, the entries can be longer or shorter
than the other.

8.      Literature review not only
helps give direction for a research, but it also sharpens the focus. By this, it means literature review helps
you to position your research within a field. This is so because, in doing a review, you will need to evaluate,
synthesize, and paraphrase the gist of
literature in your own words, known as winnowing. By this, the researcher will
be able to place the relevance of
his research in the larger context of what other researchers have already done on the topic in the past. In
this regard, the review will help you to compare and contrast what you are doing in the historical context of the
research as well as how your research
is different or original from what others have done, thereby helping you
rationalize why you need to do this particular research.

9.      Further to the above,
writing the review requires you to delve deep into the questions and concepts researchers before have dealt
with and the arguments and claims they set forth. The review allows you to also examine the gaps in the existing
scholarship and place your questions
within the wider context. The review also enables you to track the intellectual progression and all major debates in your
field of study. As a result, you will be able to signpost how you are contributing to the existing
scholarship, in what ways you are deviating from it, and how your work fits
in within the field of study.

10.   It helps avoid incidental or
inadvertent plagiarism. One great and reprimandable sin in academics is plagiarism. Academics are
never impressed by a repetitive study or research. A scholar always feel sad on seeing his previous work being
repeated in a plagiarized form. A literature published
in 2001 and repeated somehow
in 2018 suggests
that the latter
must have copied copiously
from that of 2001. This makes the latter unauthentic and suspicious. You can avoid this by doing literature review because during
the compilation of your


review, you
could have easily noticed that someone else out there has done similar research on your topic.
By knowing this fact, you can tailor
or tweak your own research
in such a way that it is
not a mere rehashing of someone else‘s original or old idea.

11.   Literature review helps
researcher pick his sources wisely: It helps you sift through large numbers of sources and zero in on the ones
most relevant to your investigation. As part of writing the review, you examine all possible secondary sources,
evaluate their relevance, analyze the
arguments they contain at the early stages of your research. This gives you a good grip over the sources, so you can
decide which ones to focus on and which ones to discard.

The Types of Literature Review

Literature review in qualitative research like in History research
is different in the way it is presented
in quantitative research (science and some social science disciplines). Researchers
in the latter category spend a great
deal of time to do their literature review at the outset of the research for some reasons, while researchers in
qualitative research only engages in it after the topic has been settled over time. The review in
quantitative research serves a slightly different purpose than the ones outlined for qualitative research.
Depending on the area of your research focus and specialty therefore, a literature review can take
various forms, namely: argumentative review, integrative review, historical
review, methodological review,
systematic review, and theoretical review.

ü  An argumentative review is
such that is written to merely present an opposing view to a given position in a literature. This will be valuable to persuade others to join you in supporting your thesis.

ü  An integrative review
however is composed of examinations and critical analysis on a given topic to introduce the need for a new
research. For example, a medical historian can use it to explain the spreading of a pandemic plague, by arguing how the
old methods of gathering and
analyzing the data were inadequate and how modern technology, such as DNA
analysis, now helps make
the same research more accurate and reliable.

ü  Similarly, a historical review will assess all the historical records
of scholarship chronologically and say the scope covered
previously has now witnessed development to be
expanded, e.g. the political economy
of agricultural production 1930-1960, would be approached and covered differently by a similar
research covering 1970-2000. Methodological review on the other hand examines
the research methods alone (collection of data, their
critical analysis, interpretation, and research results),
for example.

Generally, a
review could be structured in a thematic and chronological form. What is
important to note is that the thrust of the matter should
determine the structure and steps.6

Some Challenges

v  Some students do not
understand what literature is all about and always fall in the trap of uneasiness when asked to do it. Doing
literature review in historical research is a necessary evil that a student doing a research
cannot avoid completing.

v  In some universities, students
do not submit B.A. projects
and in some universities previously, M.A. students only submit long essays devoid of literature review. This makes

6See Lane, M. ―Doing Our Own Thinking
for Ourselves‖, Journal of the History
of Ideas
, 73, no. 1 (2012), 71–82


review a new thing for such students that could be regarded as beginners. For
such category, they have difficulty
determining how broad their literature review should be and how to go about it. They understand that
all literature directly related to their topic should be reviewed; they just don‘t know when to quit! They have trouble
determining which articles are ―related
enough‖ to their
topic to be included. Unfortunately, there is no formula that can be applied to solve the problem; a student doing
research must base his/her decisions on own judgment
and the advice of the supervisors.

v  Some students are folly
enough that they would conveniently want to suppress related literature in order to justify a
literature gap. Such students get away with this only when members of the supervising team are not
expert in the area of the research, which is often common too.

v  There is also the challenge
of reviewing digital history, which has become a major aspect of teaching and reconstruction of history,
especially animation. And since literature review in itself is a historical reconstruction, how this reconstruction
could be reconstructed is a challenge that needs
a serious attention to resolve?


ü  The temptation to have
everything be avoided:
Remember it is not in every case that bigger is always best. In this case, a smaller, well-organized review
is definitely preferred to a review containing many studies that are more or less related to the problem.
The misconception that the
worth of a topic is a function of the amount of literature available on it and reviewed. While this is not the
case, it is interesting to know that for many new and important areas of research, few studies have been published.
The very lack of such research often increases the worth of its study.

ü  Choose only works that are
directly related to your specific problem:
This is especially when investigating heavily researched
topic or area where you find plenty of references that you should not have to rely on less-related studies. For example,
research on the 19th century jihad,
colonial conquest and even the Nigerian civil war. However, where a thousand
studies have already been done in a
given problem area does not mean there is no further need for research in that area. Such an area will
generally be very well developed, and sub-topics that need additional research will be readily identifiable, the
scope and methodology can always be

ü  For a new or
little-researched problem area review any study related in some meaningful way to your problem:
In this, you will require to
gather enough information to help develop a
logical framework for the study and making a sound rationale for the research
questions. For example, you are researching on cross-border human trafficking in Nigeria; your literature
review would probably include any studies on gender, economy, cultural
practices and family system in different Nigerian areas.


If original
research is to be defended for its validity, it is important to know where it originates from. Review of literature is meant to create awareness of the
issues being covered in studying the topic or related issues being dealt with: what has been said, while realizing what has not been said. It
is also meant to reveal not only what is currently known about the
topic/problem being addressed, but also ways in which the problem/issues have been dealt with or addressed previously by other researchers,
in order to suggest or demonstrate that the research is not repeating what has
been done already.

Review of
literature is meant to create awareness of the issues being covered in
researching on the topic or related
issues being dealt with. In the modern world, no research is ever done in
isolation or unmindful of existing literature. The student should be able to demonstrate that in spite the existence
of other literatures; his/her research is different, important, necessary and would be contributing to knowledge of solving
certain academic or societal problems. So, any one that merely regurgitates what has already been
done or is known previously is not
doing a research.

While a
literature review in any field is essentially a required intellectual tradition
that offers a comprehensive overview
and recapitulation on a given research area or topic from past to present, it gives the researcher a sense of focus as
to which direction his research is headed to. It is a guarantee for producing a high-quality research,
while learning certain skills on how to access information that might be useful for future research.
From the foregoing, literature review, thus, is not just a formal requirement for writing a scholarly essay:
B.A. Project, an M.A. Thesis and PhD
Dissertation. Rather, it‘s an
integral part of any form of scholarly writing for earning a University degree
or certificate. It has to presented with a structure, determined by the thrust of the proposed
research and must contain four basic items as already noted.

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