Systematic Reviews in the Social Sciences

Types of reviews


The form of a review generally depends on its purpose and area of interest and might focus on effectiveness of interventions, key conceptual debates, or something else. Reviews generally fall along a continuum from aggragative to interpretive.

  • Traditional/narrative review - flexible methods and means of analysis, aims to identify gaps in knowledge
  • Systematic review - very structured, aims to be comprehensive and rigorous, promotes knowledge; focus on outcomes/evidence
  • Rapid review - may use some of a systematic review's procedures, but more streamlined and quicker
  • Scoping review - quickly draws main parameters of a topic & maps key publications, doesn't usually aim to appraise quality of publications (See Covidence's guide to conducting scoping reviews)
  • Systematic maps- more extensive than scoping reviews, maps out./categorizes literature on a specific topic
  • Meta-analysis - analyzes review findings using standard statistical analysis
  • Meta-synthesis - non-statistical; evaluates and analyzes findings from qualitative studies and aims to build on previous conceptualizations and interpretations

For more information see Shaw & Holland (2014). Reviewing research. In Doing Qualitative Research in Social Work. Sage.

Temple University Health Sciences Library also offers a good overview of review types related to a HEALTH SCIENCES PERSPECTIVE -- remember, this is not aimed at social scientists, but could still be a useful guide. 

What is a systematic review in the social sciences?

Below is a summary of a good overview published by  Viktor, L. (2008). Systematic Reviewing.Social Research Update, 54. University of Surrey.  For more information, also see the "Useful Books" box at the bottom of this page.

What is a systematic review?

"Systematic reviews are a method of identifying and synthesising all the available research evidence of sufficient quality concerning a specific subject. The aim is to review and synthesise evidence in a transparent and rigorous way to enhance the validity and reliability of the findings."

Systematic reviews came to prominence in clinical medicine focused on interventions and outcomes and prioritized studies that were randomized controlled trials. They are usually conducted in a staged process and are focused on answering a particular question or set of questions.

How is it different from a traditional literature review?

In a systematic review, the focus on the comprehensiveness of the search, the quality of the evidence, and the fact that it is conducted very systematically using transparent and rigorous processes contributes to the reliability and validity of its findings as compared to a traditional literature review. Systematic reviews, focused on answering a specific question, are "less a discussion of the literature, and more a scientific summarize, appraise, and communicate the results and implications of otherwise unmanageable quantities of research."  (Petticrew & Roberts, 2006, p. 10).

What is a systematic review in the social sciences?

In the social sciences, systematic reviews generally come out of the social policy area. Traditionally, they followed the methodology and approach taken in clinical medicine, using a highly prescribed staged methodology, statistical meta-analysis, etc. This approach has been adapted and extended in the social sciences allowing for more flexibility, less focus on comprehensiveness, the inclusion of a wider range of research and other methods of analysis (e.g. narrative), and using the method as a means to build theory.   

Guides to conducting systematic reviews

These organizations are focused on systematic reviews and provide resources to support conducting them.

The above resources include detailed guidelines and procedures for conducting systematic reviews. Some first steps to consider include:

1) Reviews should start with a meaningful and useful question, do you have a defined question? Is a systematic review the best way to approach this question?

2) Have you searched for other systematic reviews that have already been done on this question/topic? 

3) Develop your detailed protocol.

4) Develop an effective search strategy.

Registering a systematic review

Often a systematic review is registered before it is undertaken. This article details why and where one might do this (e.g. in addtion to registries at Cochrane and Campbell, which are restricted to systematic reviews conducted within their organizations, other registries are more open, such as PROSPERO, Research Registry, INPLASY, OSF Registries, and See this article for more info:

Pieper, D. & Rombey, T. (2022). Where to prospectively register a systematic review. Systematic Reviews, 11(8). 



Useful books

Software to Manage Systematic Reviews: Covidence

UNM has a subscription to COVIDENCE software. Visit the Library's research guide on using Covidence software for conducting systematic reviews -- learn why and how to use it.

Examples of social sciences systematic reviews

  • One good source for examples of systematic reviews in the social sciences is the Campbell Collaboration's journal, Campbell Systematic Reviews.
  • Try searching in a disciplinary database using a search limiter for "systematic reviews."  For example, in PsycInfo the METHODOLOGY field has a defined limiter for systematic reviews.  If there is no defined limiter, add the phrase "systematic reviews" to your search.  

Learn about Research Methods

Learn about research methods including systematic reviews....