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A Kind of September: Impact of Terrorist Attacks on College Students' Lives and Intimate Relationships

Susan Janssen

Department of Sociology-Anthropology

University of Minnesota-Duluth



The September 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon have been a "defining moment," not only in American history, but in many individuals' lives. According to studies of national tragedy, events of this magnitude often result in reevaluation of personal values, priorities, and lifestyle (Sheatsley and Feldman, 1964; Smith, Rasinski, and Toce, 2001; Gallup Poll Analyses, 2001b). Anecdotal evidence and historical studies suggest that this evaluation process is particularly characteristic of young people and college students (Scott and Zac, 1993; "September 11, 2001," 2001; Brownstein and Hoover, 2001). Further, college students' reactions to national events may differ from those of the general adult population (Miller, 194x).

This study investigates the effects of the terrorist attacks on the lives and relationships of students at a medium-sized midwestern university. Specific issues addressed are personal reactions, change and uncertainty in future plans and priorities, and effects on intimate relationships.

Defining Moments

What is a "defining moment?" The phrase has been used in the media to describe the September 11 attacks, along with references to other historical events such as the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the assassination of President Kennedy in 1963. In an analysis of reactions to the Kennedy assassination, Sheatsley and Feldman (1964) suggest that certain characteristics of the event increased its impact on ordinary citizens. Among these characteristics are: 1) the suddenness with which the assassination occurred, along with the rapid spread of the news across the country; 2) a tendency to personify events, i.e., to empathize with the President's family and to feel the loss personally; 3) typical grief reactions, such as sorrow, shame, anger, and physical symptoms; 4) an "overload" of tragic news (e.g. some respondents reported that they could not bear to watch TV any longer); and 5) a sense that lessons should be learned, including less hate, more patriotism, greater unity, and harsher treatment of subversives. It is not difficult to apply this list of characteristics to the events of September 11. Indeed, a comparison of public reactions to the terrorist attacks and the Kennedy assassination indicates very similar responses (Smith, Rasinski, and Toce, 2001). The above list might thus be considered one definition of a "defining moment," at least in terms of tragic or disastrous events.

Research on College Students

Do "defining moments" have a greater impact on some individuals than others? According to a study by Scott and Zac (1993), events occurring in the young adult years may be considered more memorable or important than those that occur later in life. Miller (194x) found college students' attitudes about World War II were different in some important ways, including higher pacifism and greater opposition to the draft, than attitudes in the adult population. Even sharper differences between youth and older adults were found with respect to the war in Vietnam (source). If such limited findings can be generalized, the attacks of September 11 may well have been perceived differently by youth than older adults.

A search of the literature at the time of this writing produced no references to scholarly reports on college student or youth responses to the terrorist attacks. However, several articles in publications targeted toward the academic community or alumni (Brownstein and Hoover, 2001; "Sept. 11..." 2001) summarize the results of nonscientific interviews with students in the aftermath of the attacks. Several themes emerge: 1) a desire to connect with others by calling parents or other family members, seeking out friends, or discussing the attacks in groups or classes; 2) fear and worry about future terrorist attacks, safety of self or loved ones, or generalized anxiety; 3) uncertainty about the future reflected in reconsideration of priorities or goals, soul-searching, a recognition of the vulnerability and fragility of life, or a search for spiritual meaning; and 4) social and moral concerns relating to military action, pacifism and antiwar sentiments, national security, and ethnic and religious differences.

While these concerns or themes are similar to those found among the adult population (see for example, Pew Research Center, 2001a, 2001b, 2001c; Gallup Poll Analyses, 2001a; 2001b), college students may feel them particularly acutely due to their age and stage in life. Career issues, planning for the future, independence from family, attachment to peers, and moral development are general characteristics of the late teen and young adult stages (xxxx source needed). Older adults, on the other hand, have resolved many of these issues and concerns, and most have developed a psychological or emotional foundation for dealing with life-altering events and losses, or at least putting them in perspective. Many of them can personally recall the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, or other occasions of tragedy and grief; the knowledge that life goes on and the coping mechanisms learned through experience could have been applied to the September 11 attacks. Indeed, many reported reduced worry about terrorism and going on with "business as usual" within two months (Jones, 2001; Pew Research Center, 2001b; Donaton, 2002).

Less is known about college students and how their lives may or may not have changed subsequent to the attacks. In a recent telephone poll, about 25% of college-bound high school seniors reported that they are now less likely to consider attending a college or university far away from home, especially if a plane trip is involved ("Staying Close to Home..." 2001). Brownstein and Hoover (2001) quote college students as giving more thought to career goals, having difficulty concentrating or studying, or conversely, attempting to normalize the attacks by emphasizing high achievement and perfection.

Intimate Relationships

A nearly universal reaction in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September11 was a need to connect with others (Bader, 2001; Kelly, 2001). According to the National Tragedy Study (Smith, Rasinski, and Toce, 2001), 74% of adults "felt like talking to someone," 67% contacted someone that day, and 48% were contacted by someone else. In the weeks following, about half of adults worried about the safety of loved ones (ABC News, 2001; Gallup Poll Analyses, 2001). Three months after the attacks, a Gallup Poll found that 31% of Americans were spending more time with family and friends and 33% had changed their priorities in life (Gallup Poll Topics and Trends, 2002).

Reports in the media further support this emphasis on family and relationships (Wilson-Smith, 2001), need for human connection (Kelly, 2001), and less likelihood of taking loved ones for granted (Bryant, 2001). According to Bader (2001), the need for intimacy is universal, but reaching out in normal daily life may be hindered by emotional risk, inhibitions, fear of exploitation and cultural norms. In the aftermath of traumatic events, however, sexual or emotional intimacy may become easier because vulnerability and neediness are socially sanctioned, racial and social distinctions are temporarily collapsed, and existing "rules" may no longer apply. The resulting increase in sexual encounters has been termed "post-traumatic love syndrome" or "terror sex" (Bader, 2001). Again, a search of the literature produces little in the way of scientific studies on this topic. It seems reasonable to assume, however, that casual sexual encounters encouraged by a loss of inhibition might be more characteristic of individuals who are not already in a committed relationship.

Among those already in intimate relationships, an evaluation of or focus on the existing relationship seems more likely. Media reports suggest that the terrorist attacks spurred more couples to marry (Heffernan, 2001). College students may represent a wide variety of intimate relationships, ranging from casual involvement to committed relationships, to marriage. Most are somewhere between complete dependence on their family of origin and development of a family of procreation. In this stage of life, dating is widespread, role experimentation is likely, and mature adult love is possible. Marriage may be considered in light of how it would fit into educational and career plans. College students involved in intimate relationships may therefore take a reflective and evaluative approach; any event that affects their values, goals, and plans is likely to carry over into their relationships. It is reasonable, then to examine the effects of September 11 on students' thinking about their relationships.

Data and Methods

A survey measuring attitudes and opinions concerning the September 11 attacks was administered on December 12, 2001 to 329 undergraduate students enrolled in an introductory sociology class at a mid-sized midwestern university. Included on the self-administered questionnaire are six categories of items: 1) respondent's personal contacts just after the attacks; 2) respondent's reactions to the attacks; 3) effects of the attacks on respondent's intimate relationships; 4) respondent's general opinions on war, politics, and the economy; 5) respondent's confidence in government and societal institutions, and 6) demographic and personal information. The specific wording of the items used in this analysis is described later in this paper. The sample is typical for a large, liberal education course: it consists mainly of freshman (46.3%) and sophomores (36.6%). Ages of the respondents range from 17 to 40; the median age is 19. Sixty-five percent of the respondents are female, and 35% are male. Although a wide variety of majors are represented, a disproportionate number of the students in this class come from sociology, criminology, psychology, and education. The sample cannot be considered representative of the university population. Several of our analyses also utilize comparison data from national opinion polls conducted between September and December of 2001. A summary of these data sources is presented in Table 1.

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