Literature Review: 3 Essential Ingredients
The theoretical framework, empirical research and research gap
By: Derek Jansen (MBA) | Reviewer: Eunice Rautenbach (DTech) | July 2023
Writing a comprehensive but concise literature review is no simple task. There’s a lot of ground to cover and it can be challenging to figure out what’s important and what’s not. In this post, we’ll unpack three essential ingredients that need to be woven into your literature review to lay a rock-solid foundation for your study.
This post is based on our popular online course, Literature Review Bootcamp. In the course, we walk you through the full process of developing a literature review, step by step. If it’s your first time writing a literature review, you definitely want to use this link to get 50% off the course (limited-time offer).
Ingredients vs Structure
As a starting point, it’s important to clarify that the three ingredients we’ll cover in this video are things that need to feature within your literature review, as opposed to a set structure for your chapter. In other words, there are different ways you can weave these three ingredients into your literature review. Regardless of which structure you opt for, each of the three components will make an appearance in some shape or form. If you’re keen to learn more about structural options, we’ve got a dedicated post about that here.
1. The Theoretical Framework
Let’s kick off with the first essential ingredient – that is the theoretical framework, also called the foundation of theory.
The foundation of theory, as the name suggests, is where you’ll lay down the foundational building blocks for your literature review so that your reader can get a clear idea of the core concepts, theories and assumptions (in relation to your research aims and questions) that will guide your study. Note that this is not the same as a conceptual framework.
Typically you’ll cover a few things within the theoretical framework:
Firstly, you’ll need to clearly define the key constructs and variables that will feature within your study. In many cases, any given term can have multiple different definitions or interpretations – for example, different people will define the concept of “integrity” in different ways. This variation in interpretation can, of course, wreak havoc on how your study is understood. So, this section is where you’ll pin down what exactly you mean when you refer to X, Y or Z in your study, as well as why you chose that specific definition. It’s also a good idea to state any assumptions that are inherent in these definitions and why these are acceptable, given the purpose of your study.
Related to this, the second thing you’ll need to cover in your theoretical framework is the relationships between these variables and/or constructs. For example, how does one variable potentially affect another variable – does A have an impact on B, B on A, and so on? In other words, you want to connect the dots between the different “things” of interest that you’ll be exploring in your study. Note that you only need to focus on the key items of interest here (i.e. those most central to your research aims and questions) – not every possible construct or variable.
Lastly, and very importantly, you need to discuss the existing theories that are relevant to your research aims and research questions. For example, if you’re investigating the uptake/adoption of a certain application or software, you might discuss Davis’ Technology Acceptance Model and unpack what it has to say about the factors that influence technology adoption. More importantly, though, you need to explain how this impacts your expectations about what you will find in your own study. In other words, your theoretical framework should reveal some insights about what answers you might expect to find to your research questions.
If this sounds a bit fluffy, don’t worry. We deep dive into the theoretical framework (as well as the conceptual framework) and look at practical examples in Literature Review Bootcamp. If you’d like to learn more, take advantage of the limited-time offer (60% off the standard price).
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2. The Empirical Research
Onto the second essential ingredient, which is empirical research. This section is where you’ll present a critical discussion of the existing empirical research that is relevant to your research aims and questions.
But what exactly is empirical research?
Simply put, empirical research includes any study that involves actual data collection and analysis, whether that’s qualitative data, quantitative data, or a mix of both. This contrasts against purely theoretical literature (the previous ingredient), which draws its conclusions based exclusively on logic and reason, as opposed to an analysis of real-world data.
In other words, theoretical literature provides a prediction or expectation of what one might find based on reason and logic, whereas empirical research tests the accuracy of those predictions using actual real-world data. This reflects the broader process of knowledge creation – in other words, first developing a theory and then testing it out in the field.
Long story short, the second essential ingredient of a high-quality literature review is a critical discussion of the existing empirical research. Here, it’s important to go beyond description. You’ll need to present a critical analysis that addresses some (if not all) of the following questions:
- What have different studies found in relation to your research questions?
- What contexts have (and haven’t been covered)? For example, certain countries, cities, cultures, etc.
- Are the findings across the studies similar or is there a lot of variation? If so, why might this be the case?
- What sorts of research methodologies have been used and how could these help me develop my own methodology?
- What were the noteworthy limitations of these studies?
Simply put, your task here is to present a synthesis of what’s been done (and found) within the empirical research, so that you can clearly assess the current state of knowledge and identify potential research gaps, which leads us to our third essential ingredient.
The Research Gap
The third essential ingredient of a high-quality literature review is a discussion of the research gap (or gaps).
But what exactly is a research gap?
Simply put, a research gap is any unaddressed or inadequately explored area within the existing body of academic knowledge. In other words, a research gap emerges whenever there’s still some uncertainty regarding a certain topic or question.
For example, it might be the case that there are mixed findings regarding the relationship between two variables (e.g., job performance and work-from-home policies). Similarly, there might be a lack of research regarding the impact of a specific new technology on people’s mental health. On the other end of the spectrum, there might be a wealth of research regarding a certain topic within one country (say the US), but very little research on that same topic in a different social context (say, China).
These are just random examples, but as you can see, research gaps can emerge from many different places. What’s important to understand is that the research gap (or gaps) needs to emerge from your previous discussion of the theoretical and empirical literature. In other words, your discussion in those sections needs to start laying the foundation for the research gap.
For example, when discussing empirical research, you might mention that most studies have focused on a certain context, yet very few (or none) have focused on another context, and there’s reason to believe that findings may differ. Or you might highlight how there’s a fair deal of mixed findings and disagreement regarding a certain matter. In other words, you want to start laying a little breadcrumb trail in those sections so that your discussion of the research gap is firmly rooted in the rest of the literature review.
But why does all of this matter?
Well, the research gap should serve as the core justification for your study. Through your literature review, you’ll show what gaps exist in the current body of knowledge, and then your study will then attempt to fill (or contribute towards filling) one of those gaps. In other words, you’re first explaining what the problem is (some sort of gap) and then proposing how you’ll solve it.
To recap, the three ingredients that need to be mixed into your literature review are:
- The foundation of theory or theoretical framework
- The empirical or evidence-based research
- The research gap
As we mentioned earlier, these are components of a literature review and not (necessarily) a structure for your literature review chapter. Of course, you can structure your chapter in a way that reflects these three components (in fact, in some cases that works very well), but it’s certainly not the only option. The right structure will vary from study to study, depending on various factors.
If you’d like to get hands-on help developing your literature review, be sure to check out our private coaching service, where we hold your hand through the entire research journey, step by step.