Systematic Reviews in the Social Sciences

There is a tendency amongst some students looking for an approach for their undergraduate dissertation to claim they want to do “library based research”, by which they mean they are going to look through whatever literature is available to them on a particular topic, ie whatever is available in the university library or easily accessible on the internet, and write a kind of extended essay or literature review on the subject. I wouldn’t wish to undermine the value of such desk-based research, and indeed when done well some very good dissertations have been completed in this way.

There are, however, different ways of approaching desk-based research or the extended literature review. One approach is to produce a piece of theoretical research. This does not mean “in theory this will be a good dissertation but I haven’t written anything yet”, but might mean the application of a particular theory or body of theoretical literature to a particular case, a feminist critique of the UK counter-terrorism policy for example.

When it comes to the extended literature review, it may also be possible to produce what is known as a systematic review. A systematic review is an approach to reviewing the existing literature on a subject which involves the adoption of a transparent and replicable system in the identification and analysis of the literature. A detailed description of the method then forms a part of the study itself. The notion is that this is more thorough and less subject to bias than traditional literature reviews which tend to involve the researcher picking and choosing those works, and themes they think are important.

Systematic reviews have been common in some fields, such as medicine, for a long time, but have recently been applied more widely, particularly in social policy. They provide a means of reviewing all the evidence on a particular policy. Systematic reviews must be comprehensive and cannot, by definition, be limited only to the literature available in the nearest library. Consequently they involve a lot of work and are very challenging but they can result in a rewarding and useful study.

The Centre for Reviews and Dissemination at the University of York have been at the forefront of systematic review and have produced some useful guidance. There is inevitably a journal devoted systematic reviews which provides an invaluable editorial on the nature and growing use of systematic reviews. Although not widely covered in the research methods literature there is a useful section on systematic reviews in Bryman’s Social Research Methods, 3rd edition, pp.85-91, while Sundberg and Taylor-Gooby’s systematic review of comparative studies of attitudes to social policy is a good example of the approach.

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