Quick Guide: Doing a Literature Review for a Situation Analysis

Quick Guide: Doing a Literature Review for a Situation Analysis

The following steps will guide you in doing a literature review for a situation analysis, although this does require a certain level of skill. The guidelines below will help you with the minimum information you need to know to perform a literature review that is reliable. The more effort you invest in further research the better you will be in practice.

Step 1: Search for the right information to inform research

Research articles typically report on research which, because its methodology is rooted in science, allows us to say or understand something with a high level of confidence in the truth/validity of what is being described. Research papers are published in journals, like the The Southern African Journal of Education for example. People who are not staff members or students registered with a tertiary education generally have to pay to access them. This is particularly true for papers published in international journals. Payment can be made online and you will get immediate access to the article with the option of downloading it.  Prices range between R80-R500 per article, depending on the exchange rate.  A quick way to search for articles is to use the Google Scholar search engine. This will allow you to search all relevant publications to see whether or not they are free. If you are looking for free articles or access to the findings of scientific research freely available, you can use the following websites to search:

​Reports and learning briefs are often generated and made available by non profit organisations or other agencies implementing and coordinating social interventions.  Reports and learning briefs are based on actual experience (by the author or organisation) and so are very valuable resources when doing a literature review for a situation analysis.  You should be able to access reports through a normal Google search; remember to experiment with different search terms as sometimes different combinations of words will give better results.  If you find an organisation that is doing relevant work, contact them and ask them about their experiences even if they don’t have publications available.  Some useful places to look are:

News and other internet sources are extremely useful. Newspaper articles (print and online) will inform you of recent developments in the area that you are interested in and Wikipedia is an excellent quick reference to understand the basics of concepts or issues. The link for the relevant term will usually appear in a Google search. 

Step 2: Study the information 

When searching for information, you tend to gather many pieces of research that can look relevant, but turn out to be otherwise.  Take the time to do an initial scan through information and then disregard, select or keep what you need from a search. From this, it is helpful to highlight quotes in the information that will be useful to refer to or read again when writing the review. If you prefer to work with printed documents, create written notes or use highlighters to underline important quotes.  When working electronically, you can create a Microsoft Word table (watch a video showing you how) by coping and pasting the quote (from the PDF file or internet), adding the name of the source document and assigning it to one or more categories.

Try to create broadly defined categories which helps you to 'chunk' information easily - in this way it is easier to arrange and order quotes. You can sort the category column alphabetically and arrange the quotes under a certain topic.  This will allow you to see which areas you have covered sufficiently and which you still need to find more information on.   An example is shown below.

Quote Category  Source

Indeed, the article takes as its starting point the observation that NPOs in South Africa and elsewhere are increasingly challenged to demonstrate relevance and results due to the relative scarcity of development funds.

Increased pressure to do M&E Mueller-Hirth1

In other words, there is a significant gap between the extensive debates and innovations surrounding evaluation, and actual M&E practices in the selected NPOs.

M&E is becoming too complex for many organisations Mueller-Hirth

The difficulty for many NPOs is that these systems make little sense. Many respondents from NPOs stated that the requirements were a distraction from their real work, confusing, redundant or destructive.

M&E is becoming too complex for many organisations Bornstein2

Capacity is at the core of the division between those who can satisfy donors’ requirements through effort and creativity and those who cannot.

M&E capacity is often lacking Bornstein
1Mueller-Hirth, N. 2012. If You Don’t Count, You Don’t Count: Monitoring and Evaluation in South African NGOs. Development and Change 43(3): 649–670.
2Bornstein, R. 2006. Systems of Accountability, Webs of Deceit? Monitoring and Evaluation in South African NGOs. Development, 2006, 49(2), (52–61).

Step 3: Write the Review

(i)  A logical flow and structure is really important.

Start by thinking through and drawing a flow chart of how you will structure the review. Always put yourself in the shoes of the reader. Firstly, the reader needs to be introduced to the topic.  What is it about and why is it important? Next, systematically unpack and analyse the core issues and follow these with recommendations for the development of your programme or intervention after considering the issues. Finally, pull the main findings and recommendations together in a short conclusion.  An example of a flow chart is given below for a literature review dealing with the topic of youth unemployment. 

(i)   Simple, clear, readable text is key.

Writing well is vital and there are various courses and resources available online (for free) to help you. The Purdue Online Writing Lab is a great resource as is the online course, 'writing for the sciences', by free online university Coursera.

Our top four writing guidelines are:

  1. Keep sentences and paragraphs short. Re-read sentences and cut them in two or three where necessary. This also applies to paragraphs.

  2. Write clearly and simply. In a country where most people use English as a second language, accessible and clear writing is particularly important. 

  3. The spelling and grammar check feature of your word processing software is essential and should be used throughout work. Remember that good writing is influenced by the time spent crafting and arranging words in the right way.

  4. Edit, edit, edit. Read, re-read and change. Do this multiple times to refine your writing. You may need to ask someone else to read through your work for an unbiased and objective opinion as too much time spent in front of text can cause the best writer to miss things.

Step 4: Reference

You need to reference the work of others in your text and provide a list of references at the end of your document.  References for academic documents in the social sciences are usually based on American Psychological Association (APA) standards and guidelines.  If you would like to follow these guidelines, the Purdue Online Writing Lab provides them.  We find it easiest to reference using footnotes, particularly for copying and pasting information between documents as the sentence and footnote are copied together (see the video showing you how)

You must reference when describing the ideas and concepts of others or quoting text directly. You can either work the reference into the sentence with the year of publication in brackets such as: "Bornstein (2006) argues...; According to Bornstein (2006)…; Bornstein (2006) emphasises..."; or you can paraphrase or “quote” and simply put the surname of the author and the publication date in brackets at the end of the sentence (such as: Bornstein, 2006). Remember to provide the full reference as a footnote[1] next to the in-text reference or to provide the number of the footnote if it has already been given earlier.   The following is the format of the four types of references that you will use most often:




A journal article:


Appleton, J. 2000. ‘At my age I should be sitting under that tree’: the impact of AIDS on Tanzanian lakeshore communities. Gender and Development, 8(2): 19-27.

Surname (s), Initials/Name of author organisaton. Publication year. Name of article. Name of journal in italics, Issue number (volume number in brackets): page numbers.

A book or report:

Altman, M and Marock, C. 2008. Identifying appropriate interventions to support the transition from schooling to the workplace. Pretoria: Human Sciences Research Council and Centre for Poverty Employment and Growth.

Surname (s), Initials/Name of author organisaton. Publication year. Name of report or book in italics. Place of publication: Name of publisher

An internet resource:

SASSA. 2011. You and your grants: 2011/12. Pretoria: SASSA (accessed from: http://www.sassa.gov.za/Portals/1/Documents/d54e383b-7e3d-4c96-8aa2-4cc7d32bc78f.pdf on 26 May 2012).

Surname (s), Initials/Name of author organisaton. Publication year. Name of document in italics. Place of publication: Name of publisher (accessed from: website address on [date accesed])

A newspaper article:

Mail & Guardian. 2009. ‘Child support grant could extend to 18-year-olds’. The Mail & Guardian, 11 February (accessed from: http://mg.co.za/article/2009-02-11-child-support-grant-could-extend-to-18-year-olds on 26 May 2012).

Surname (s), Initials of journalist (if known)/Name of newspaper. Publication year. Name of article. Name Newspaper, date that article was published (accessed from: website addres on [date accesed])


[1] Bornstein, R. 2006. Systems of Accountability, Webs of Deceit? Monitoring and Evaluation in South African NGOs. Development, 2006, 49(2), (52–61).