How to write your literature review

Using the literature

when you've finished this page you will be able to...


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Read reviews published in journals in your research area. Reading reviews written by experts will give you a good idea of how to use the literature to provide background to your research question and support your hypothesis. You'll often find the literature review in the introduction section of a journal article.

On the first page of this topic we listed some reasons why it's important to review the literature. These included...

On this page, we'll explore how you can use the literature to show you can do all these things.

In the activity below, you'll examine how one author has used the literature to introduce and support his research. The review in this activity was published in an economics journal, but it doesn't matter what the review is about - it's how the author uses the literature that interests us.

Activity: How to use the literature - 20 minutes

1. Read the literature review below Fraternity Membership and Binge Drinking, and as you read, make notes in answer to the following questions:

  • How does the author use the literature to provide the background (set the scene) for his study?
  • How does he use the literature to support his hypothesis?
  • How does he use the literature to show that his research is important and relevant?
  • Does he include any studies that disagree with his hypothesis?

2. When you've answered the questions, take a look at the discussion at the end of the course.

3. Do you agree with our observations on how this author uses the literature? You may have noted different things, but the important thing is that you're starting to see how the literature can be used to set the scene and justify your research.

Jeff DeSimone (2006), 'Fraternity Membership and Binge Drinking'. Journal of Health Economics 26 (5): 950-967

The main activity with which fraternities are associated is alcohol use. Fraternities often connote a culture of drunkenness, as famously portrayed in the movie Animal House. Anecdotal evidence of problem drinking at fraternity events abounds. Data confirm that fraternity members drink more intensively than do non-members. In the NCHRBS, past month binge drinking, defined as consuming at least five alcoholic beverages within a few hours, was reported by 69% of fraternity members as compared with 42% of non-members.3 Analyses of data from the CAS (Chaloupka and Wechsler, 1996) and the Core Alcohol and Drug Survey ([Alva, 1998] and [Cashin et al., 1998]) have similarly documented that fraternity members drink more frequently and heavily than do their non-member peers.

It is tempting to assume that fraternity membership is the reason that fraternity members drink more excessively than do non-members. But does fraternity membership truly cause binge drinking? Specifically, would the incidence or frequency of binge drinking among students who join fraternities decline in the absence of fraternities? That is the question this study addresses. College student binge drinking is a concern because it is associated with many behaviors that are harmful, particularly to others. These include drunken driving (Hingson et al., 2003b), violence (Wechsler et al., 1995), vandalism and related disturbances (Wechsler et al., 2002), sexual activity that is forced (Mohler-Kuo et al., 2004) or risky (Hingson et al., 2003a), and reduced academic performance (Kremer and Levy, 2003). Efforts that most effectively limit external binge drinking effects depend in part on whether fraternities increase binge drinking.

Students who join fraternities presumably perceive that membership will facilitate desired binge drinking by matching them with students who share these preferences. For example, Sacerdote (2001) found that high school drinkers in the Dartmouth senior classes of 1997 and 1998 were more likely to join a fraternity than were other classmates. Baer et al. (1995), Schall et al. (1992) and Wechsler et al. (1996) obtain similar evidence and report that among students who drank in high school, those who joined fraternities were more likely to have binge drank.

If self-selection of binge drinkers into fraternities is responsible for the correlation between drinking and fraternity membership, members would binge drink even if fraternities did not exist, and binge drinking therefore cannot be attributed to membership. In contrast, Borsari and Carey (1999) outline three ways in which fraternity membership might increase binge drinking. One is by applying social pressure to drink in order to gain acceptance among fellow members. Another is by elevating perceptions of peer drinking norms, which college students already tend to overestimate. The third is by providing an environment that makes alcohol readily available and is insulated from students less tolerant of binge drinking. Consistent with this, Lo and Globetti (1995) find that students who do not previously binge drink are three times more likely to start doing so if they join a fraternity. Also, Sher et al. (2001) estimate that fraternity members drank more heavily than non-members during college, even controlling for previous alcohol use, but that this discrepancy disappeared within 3 years after college.

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Recommended Further Reading

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It's worth repeating that the more literature reviews you read, the better you'll become at using the literature in your own review - so get reading.

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