Boell & Cecez-Kecmanovic (2014) A Hermeneutic Approach For Conducting Literature Reviews and Literature Searches


The quality and success of scholarly work depends in large measure on the quality of the literature review process. This paper advances conceptual understanding of the literature review process and extends earlier guidelines on literature reviews. It proposes a hermeneutic framework that integrates the analysis and interpretation of literature and the search for literature. This hermeneutic framework describes the literature review process as fundamentally a process of developing understanding that is iterative in nature. Using the hermeneutic circle it describes the literature review process as being constituted by literature searching, classifying and mapping, critical assessment, and argument development. The hermeneutic approach emphasizes continuous engagement with and gradual development of a body of literature during which increased understanding and insights are developed. The paper contributes to better understanding of the literature review process and provides guidelines to assist researchers in conducting high quality reviews.

Citation Sebastian K. Boell, Dubravka Cecez-Kecmanovic (2014). A Hermeneutic Approach For Conducting Literature Reviews and Literature Searches. Communications of the Association for Information Systems, vol. 34 no. 1, pp. 257–286. PDF

BibTex entry for this article:

BibTex entry for this article:

author = {Boell, Sebastian K. and Cecez-Kecmanovic, Dubravka},
issn = {15293181},
journal = {Communications of the Association for Information Systems},
number = {1},
pages = {257--286},
title = {{A Hermeneutic Approach For Conducting Literature Reviews and Literature Searches}},
volume = {34},
year = {2014}

Key ideas

This paper is concerned with the literature review process and aims to contribute to a better conceptual understanding of how the search for literature and development of a literature review can be creatively intertwined and mutually enriching so as to advance scholarship. We describe the literature review process as a hermeneutic understanding process. We thus contribute a hermeneutic framework that advances conceptual understanding of the process of conducting literature reviews and offers practical guidance for researchers. The hermeneutic framework for conducting literature reviews is proposed and described in the paper to assist researchers in understanding and coping with often complex issues of literature review development. The framework also provides a clear account of the role of literature searches as part of the literature review process. (p. 258)


1. Introduction

The main purpose of academic activity is to engage in the creation of knowledge. This is achieved by developing new ways for understanding the world. (p. 258)

One important aspect of creating new knowledge is the awareness of existing knowledge and research undertaken by others. (p. 258)

Arguably the most important means for becoming familiar with earlier research is through published writings by other scholars. (p. 258)

The body of relevant literature also needs to be understood and interpreted, and subjected to examination, questioning and critical assessment that unleashes imagination and advances scholarship. (p. 258)

Generally, the term literature review can refer to a published product such as literature reviews presented as parts of research reports (e.g. in papers or theses) or a stand-alone literature review publication. (p. 258)

Literature reviews examine and critically assess existing knowledge in a particular problem domain, forming a foundation for identifying weaknesses and poorly understood phenomena, or enabling problematization of assumptions and theoretical claims in the existing body of knowledge. (p. 258)

To conduct high quality literature reviews in Information Systems (IS) Webster and Watson [2002] propose a topic-centric approach for presenting earlier research, rather than a publication centric listing of results in earlier studies. The strengths of this approach are that it tends to be more critical, and that it foregrounds a researcher's perspective onto a domain. (p. 258)

2. Literature Reviews

Generally three broad categories of literature reviews can be distinguished: (p. 260)

  • Firstly, literature reviews are an integrative part of any research thesis
  • Secondly, literature reviews can be an important type of publication in their own right
  • Thirdly, the most common form of literature review appears as a part of research publications

A literature review is not something that comes before the real study. Reading, conducting empirical research, and writing are not a linear but rather an iterative process. (p. 260)

Systematic Literature Reviews are of particular interest due to the emphasis they place on the literature search process. (p. 261)

Based on this review of the literature we can conclude that: (p. 261)

  1. conducting literature reviews is not only an important aspect in nearly every research publication but also that it plays an important part in knowledge development in the form of review articles, and that it is a central consideration in research training and the development of research theses;
  2. there are different and often conflicting understandings of the nature of the literature review process and confusing instructions on how it should be conducted; and
  3. locating and interpreting literature is an important aspect of the literature review process that is currently insufficiently addressed in the literature.

3. A Hermeneutic Framework For The Literature Review Process

Hermeneutics as a conceptual foundation for literature reviews

Introduction into the hermeneutic framework for the literature review process

4. Analysis And Interpretation – The Wider Circle

The analysis and interpretation circle starts with more or less clear ideas about a research problem or a topic, and continues within the ‘search and acquisition’ circle, from which at some point the reading progresses to mapping and classifying, critical assessment, and argument development, often leading to the revised research problem and a new circle of literature searching, reading, mapping and classifying, and so on. Typically a literature review document is produced through several iterations through this circle. (p. 264)


Reading as part of the literature review is analytical reading, which differs from leisurely reading [Hart, 1998]. Its purpose is to interpret and understand identified publications, first individually and then gradually in relation to one another. (p. 265)

The researcher starts with some preunderstanding based on previous readings and experiences. (p. 265)

Gradually reading analytically produces an outcome … after reading a number of publications, researchers start building an understanding of how individual publications come together to form a body of relevant literature. (p. 265)

Through analytic reading the researcher develops an ability to identify key concepts, findings and theories and their interpretations and a capacity to infer assumptions and a methodological approach even when they are not explicitly stated. The researcher also develops confidence in assessing knowledge claims and the strength of the argument and evidence provided. (p. 265)

Given that potentially relevant literature on any topic is typically huge, the reading needs to be carefully structured and organized. A useful reading strategy in case of a very large number of publications is first to glance through the identified texts in order to gain an overall impression of their content that can be described as orientational reading. (p. 265)

Mapping and Classifying

Mapping and classifying is a distinct activity which aims to provide a systematic analysis of relevant ideas, findings and contributions to knowledge within the body of literature and present them in a way that enables the subsequent activity – a critical assessment of the state of knowledge related to the research problem. (p. 266)

“Mapping out the ideas is about setting out, on a paper, the geography of research and thinking that has been done on a topic. At one level, it is about identifying what has been done, when it was done, what methods were used and who did what. At another level, it is about identifying links between what has been done, to show the thinking that has influenced what has been produced. You can use these methods to elicit knowledge about the topic and then prepare diagrams and tables to represent that knowledge in terms of the relationships between ideas and arguments that you have found.” [Hart, 1998: 144].

Mapping and classification of literature is a creative process that builds on a deeper understanding of the body of literature achieved through analytical reading. This process may lead to new questions and identify new relevant publications to be included in the body of knowledge. Researchers are invited to use their imagination to develop a distinct, innovative and interesting way of mapping and classifying the literature (p. 267)

Critical assessment

A critical assessment of the body of literature aims to analyze and evaluate the state of knowledge related to the problem/topic studied and identify major weaknesses (p. 267)

A critical assessment of the body of literature thus demonstrates that literature is incomplete, that certain aspects/phenomena are overlooked, that research results are inconclusive or contradictory, and that knowledge related to the targeted problem is in some ways inadequate (p. 267)

To attempt a more radical critique and problematize a literature domain a researcher has to engage in dialectic interrogation of assumptions and results in the literature and also of her/his own familiar position.(p. 267)

This challenges researchers to adopt a reflective attitude toward the horizon of possible meanings established by the body of literature and question the hermeneutic achievements thus far (p. 268)

Argument development

Based on a critical assessment of different approaches, strands of research and knowledge produced thus far, a researcher develops an argument for a research gap or problematization of established knowledge (p. 268)

The arguments for the claim that existing knowledge is insufficient or problematic have to be compelling in order to warrant further research. (p. 268)

The arguments are compelling if sufficient evidence is shown to demonstrate not only the gap or problematic assumptions but also why it is important to address the gap or to conduct research based on different assumptions. (p. 268)

The logic of the argument from the mapping and classification, to critical assessment and the construction of a gap, to the motivation for further research has to be consistent, well articulated and convincingly documented (p. 268)

Research is not only always written on the basis of a background provided by other research it draws from, but also with regard to a community it seeks to contribute to.(p. 268)

Argument development is crucial for the writing process when conducting literature reviews and is also the reason for the importance of continuous writing while conducting a literature review. Writing forces the development of a linear argumentation based on the literature analysis and assessment. (p. 268)

Research Problem / Questions

The argument development ultimately constructs a gap or problematizes dominant knowledge in the literature that often requires the revision or reformulation of the initial research problem (p. 268)

Apart from constructing a gap or problematizing the existing literature a researcher also needs to argue why it is important (and for whom) to fill the gap or to develop new knowledge about the problem. (p. 268)

A researcher goes through the hermeneutic circles of analysis and interpretation until a satisfactory outcome – a well argued literature review, including a research problem or questions is produced. (p. 268)

The quality of a literature review thus depends on the quality of all activities in the hermeneutic circle (p. 268)

5. Search And Acquisition – The Inner Circle

without proper understanding of searches and identification of relevant literature the production of high quality reviews is impossible (p. 269)


Within the hermeneutic framework, retrieving small sets of highly relevant publications is preferable over huge sets of documents whose relevance cannot be sufficiently judged. (p. 269)

Based on this deeper understanding of an area the way searches are approached can be continuously improved, for instance, as one becomes aware of new search terms. (p. 269)


One way is to use the ranking algorithm provided by a database which is designed to display 'more relevant' documents towards the top of the list (p. 270)

sorting can employ citations (p. 270)



Reading and identifying


Leaving the hermeneutic circle – Enough is enough

6. Conclusion

the way one comes to understand a specific literature is based upon earlier understanding of other literature. (p. 273)

The hermeneutic framework therefore provides a theoretical foundation for the view of literature review as an organic system that is constantly growing and changing (p. 273)

Tables and figures

Figure 1: A hermeneutic framework for the literature review process consisting of two major hermeneutic circles Figure 1 ~ p.264

Figure 2: An overview of different tools and techniques associated with individual steps of the hermeneutic circle of literature searching and acquisition Figure 2 ~ p.269

Table 1: Overview of the hermeneutic circle of analysis and interpretation Description Table 1 ~ p.265

Table 2: Possible means for mapping and classifying research literature Table 2 ~ p.266

Table 3: Overview of the inner hermeneutic circle for conducting literature searches Table 3 ~ p.269


Conducting literature reviews, Database searches, Hermeneutics, INF6001W, Interpreting literature, Literature Review, Literature review, Literature searches, Research methods