Narrative Literature Review

A literature review is a thorough and critical evaluation of previous research on a topic of interest to the author. The review summarizes a particular area of research that helps to explain why an author is interested in a particular topic. A literature review is primarily associated with formal academic writing, such as a master’s thesis, dissertation, or a peer-reviewed journal article. It is commonly part of a proposal written by someone pursuing a thesis or dissertation, known as a research prospectus. A literature review is also a common writing assignment in undergraduate- and graduate-level courses. An effective review of literature will define key terminology, identify a theoretical framework for the topic being addressed, and describe relevant past research in support of a research question or hypothesis.

A narrative literature review provides a synthesis or examination of the literature by considering issues and the development of the research over time. Narrative literature reviews can be contrasted with meta-analysis or the quantitative review or synthesis of literature. This entry proceeds by describing the nature of a narrative literature review both in terms of the motivation and process for such a review. The narrative literature review is compared to a review using meta-analysis with a discussion of both the advantages and disadvantages of employing such a review.

Describing the Narrative Review

A narrative review provides a synthesis or description of the literature review without using quantitative methods. Often the purpose of the review involves the evaluation of some set of investigations and involves theoretical statements and casts a wide range of topics and investigations.

A simple narrative literature review could provide a history and trace the development of some construct or theory over time. Approaches to scholarship are elements that develop over time as scholars continue to pursue some line of inquiry. The interaction between scholars (such as students, instructors, and colleagues) plays an important role in the development of any line of inquiry. Among the issues that arise when constructing narrative literature reviews are personal and relational issues, because scholarship always constitutes a collaborative process conducted by a community of scholars. The development of any line of thinking is a tracing of how individuals as well as communities of scholars have responded to the proposed challenges and opportunities provided by the new form of scholarship.

A narrative analysis may trace a particular theory and the line of research related to the findings relevant to that theory. A theory considers a number of issues and each element of the theory provides a set of issues that become researched by that line of inquiry that may or may not have supported or resolved sets of issues. The history of the development of those issues and the research associated with the exploration becomes an important narrative to chronicle. The logic and journey of discovery becomes a part of the examination.

Strengths of a Narrative Review

Unlike quantitative reviews, which have very narrowly defined parameters and precise inclusion and exclusion rules, a narrative review has more flexibility. The narrative review provides more potential for individual insight and opportunities for speculation than most quantitative review approaches.

The ability to consider variation in formats and alternatives permits the generation of a wider and more inclusive picture of available research. A consideration of history and the personal nature of how the process of research takes place is part of the narrative literature review. A formal part of the consideration is also the political and personal connections among scholars that frequently forms the basis for the conduct of research. The conduct of social science research involves a personal as well as a professional process, and the understanding and inclusion of that part of the research is important to appreciating the research more broadly.

Weaknesses of a Narrative Review

The weakness of a narrative review lies in the procedure used to reach and offer conclusions about the nature of quantitative or qualitative empirical literature.

Quantitative literature outcomes vary based on the existence of Type I (false positive) or Type II (false negative) errors. A Type I error can occur based on the level of alpha error selected to use as the basis of the significance test. Typically, most social science procedures employ a Type I error rate of 5%, often expressed as p < .05, where p represents the probability of Type I error. The impact of Type I (false positive) error is the acceptance and statement of a relationship where none exists. The incidence of Type I error is relatively low as demonstrated by most meta-analyses that seldom find nonsignificant findings challenging closely held assumptions about effects existing.

Type II error (false negative) rates run often in excess of 50% across a set of findings. The typical pattern in empirical findings generates a set of outcomes where 50% of the results of significance tests are significant and 50% of the outcomes reported are nonsignificant. What results is confusion when trying to summarize the available literature. Since the incidence of Type II error typically reflects statistical issues related to sampling error, the solution is to increase the sample size and improve the accuracy of the estimation for any statistical parameter. Meta-analysis, as a form of quantitative literature review, has a primary effect of increasing sample size and therefore the accuracy of the estimation. Combining sample sizes across studies reduces the level of Type II error to negligible levels.

The importance of Type II error is the role played in many narrative reviews of the literature. The problem of analyzing and drawing conclusions when the empirical literature findings remain inconsistent becomes difficult. The problem with Type II error involves the issues that the distribution of errors is random due to sampling error. The impact of random error means that no methodological or theoretical argument/standard serves to reduce or identify the source of the error. Drawing valid conclusions requires a prior step of eliminating or reducing the level of Type II error (often hovering at about 50% for each test). The failure to find a means to handle this random source of error means that drawing conclusions for a pattern has all the markings of trying to make sense out of random flips of a coin and often leads to frustration and inaccuracy.

The suggestion is a narrative review process be maintained but the narrative become primarily focused on handling issues dealing with a large number of relevant meta-analyses on related topics. As the number and scope of meta-analyses grow in communication sciences, the web of findings that provide an interrelated set of associations and effects requires explanation and compilation. The compilation of findings serves as the basis for an examination, evaluation, or generation of various theoretical positions. The process of weaving and creating an understanding of the literature generates a narrative.

In essence, the comparison is between the “traditional narrative literature review” and the more “comprehensive review of meta-analyses.” The traditional narrative literature review relies on individual studies (using significance test results) and establishes and compares findings using the results of those tests. The traditional review contains the problems of both Type I and Type II errors of the results of each test. Without a means to identify, eliminate, or even reduce those errors, the traditional narrative review faces an almost insurmountable challenge. The challenge of creating a systematic review when the number of studies is large (often over 200 investigations) may not be possible or reasonable. The comprehensive review involving meta-analyses uses the narrative structure but relies on meta-analyses instead of individual studies. The resulting reliance means that the level of Type I and Type II error is substantially reduced. Methodological issues, when highlighted using meta-analysis, become statements applied to the entire set of literature that is systematically examined. The argument is for a reconceptualization of the elements of proof and unit of analysis when conducting and writing a review of the literature rather than an outright rejection of narrative literature reviews.

Additional Considerations

All reviews, even quantitative reviews employing meta-analysis, employ some element of narrative to provide a coherent explanation for the myriad findings, methods, and underlying theoretical explanations. The challenge is establishing whether the narrative sets forth a set of arguments about the content of the empirical literature that reasonably supports a conclusion. The goal of the review is the basis for understanding whether the means or organization of the evidence provides a basis for the conclusions. As with all stories, some assumptions and leaps are necessary to fill in the gaps and unknown but presumed facts and understandings that make a narrative possible.

The art of storytelling requires attention to the organizational pattern so the elements of the provided proof make sense. The existence of empirical evidence to support the conclusions requires clear and succinct demonstration and articulation. The problem of narrative analysis is the tension between the desire for simplicity and the need or pressure to include nuance and detailed information. Each study presents a separate and unique context in which data collection took place. The challenge of any review is to find the right balance between details and generalizations when describing the literature in question. A successful review provides some general conclusions and focus and tries to establish the relevant unique or singular elements that require consideration when applying or understanding the conclusions.

All narratives represent only one possible telling of the tale or organization of the available information. One problem with any story is that by changing perspective (like the theoretical position of the analyst) another story or organization becomes possible. Even when there is basic agreement on most of the factual claims, there may be alternative narratives and arguments that could connect the dots. The key is to find a set of general conclusions that the argument makes clear and easy to accept given the nature of the existing evidence. The narrative should make clear the basis for the conclusion articulating the understanding about why the argument deserves adoption. When the underlying issues are developed and explained, a narrative provides a convincing and accessible means of demonstrating a conclusion.

John Bourhis

See also Literature Review, The; Literature Review, Foundational; Literature Reviews, Resources for; Meta-Analysis

Further Readings

Allen, M., Titsworth, S., & Hunt, S. K. (2009). Quantitative research in communication. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Baumeister, R., & Leary, M. (1997). Writing narrative literature reviews. Review of General Psychology, 1(3), 311–320.

Cronin, P., Ryan, F., & Coughlan, M. (2008). Undertaking a literature review: a step-by-step approach. British Journal of Nursing, 17(3), 38–43.

Green, B., Johnson, C., & Adams, A. (2006). Writing narrative literature reviews for peer-reviewed journals: Secrets of the trade. Journal of Chiropractic Medicine, 5(3), 101–114.

John Bourhis
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