It’s The People, Stupid

Most of the way that we talk about doing ‘literature reviews” is widely misleading. We talk about ‘how to find sources’ creating ‘topic maps’ and defining ‘arguments’. But as anthropologists we know that ultimately, a literature review is about people. It is, in actuality, a map of the personal networks that create the literature. This is particularly true in anthropology, which is a relatively small field compared to, say, biology.

Doing a ‘literature’ review, then, basically means creating a series of dossiers of the scholars with whom you will be interacting. The more creepily complete, the better.

A lot of times you will know who to Google first because you have at least some clue of who is who in your field. Those of you attending schools with high levels of cultural capital have probably met them already. If worse to worse your advisor can throw out a few names: “Why haven’t you read, oh you know, X, Y and Z”? After you get the a few leads, this is what you do:

Get a CV: The best way to get a CV or list of publications is, imho, to google “[name of professor] department” or “[name of prof] professor department”. Googling for ‘CV’ will get you the CVs of everyone whose committee your prof was on. Googling ‘anthropology’ won’t work because often these people aren’t in anthropology departments. Sometimes ‘professor’ won’t work for non-US schools because they might be ‘senior lecturers’ or something like that.

Download Orgy: download every article and publication, conference paper and report. Often the shorter informal pieces are better because they get to the point quickly and give you a sense of the person. This phase is enjoyable because you have the illusion of making progress merely by right-clicking. Find everything. The more obscure the better. Never give up, never surrender.

File your articles: don’t let them pile up in the downloads folder — get them all in your bibliography or note-taking program with as much decent metadata as you can manage.

Read the acknowledgements of their dissertation, and maybe the first chapter: People thank their advisors. Once you know where they come from you know where they are going. If you do this enough after a while you will start to sense the names of the people — and the places, department culture is very important — who influenced them.

Look at the big picture: At this point you should have a good sense of where institutionally they’ve taught and been taught. You know their topic and main intellectual preoccupation. With their works all arranged chronologically in Zotero you can see patterns start to emerge: their dissertation, the article summarizing their dissertation that they published when they were on the market, the book of the dissertation they published to get tenure, the crazy project on Goth Fashion they began once they got tenure because they wanted to study something ‘fun’. Just having a chronology of their work already tells you most of what you need to know about them.

Read selectively: Now you have a sense of who this person is and how they are related to you. Is this going to be your main ally or opponent in your dissertation? If so, then you should read very very closely. It may turn out they are related but tangential to your project. In this case a brief look at the abstracts of a couple of articles should be ok — you can always come back to this person’s dossier later now that you have it in place. For most scholars you will be somewhere in-between, and choosing how deeply to engage is itself a statement of who you are as a person.

Bibliography Crawl: read the bibliography of that person’s articles and look for people who are cited repeatedly, or with great vehemence. These are the next links in the chain — start compiling a dossier on them.

An article a day: once you’ve sussed out someone, then you can always return to their work in the course of your normal article-a-day reading.

Check for Updates Manually: The key to the literature is to keep up to date. Once someone is on your radar look out for new work by them, and occasionally Google Scholar them to make sure that you are up to date. Reading the newest latest really does matter for the relevance of your project to granting agencies, and it’s deeply ingratiating to your fellow scholars to be told at a conference that you’ve read their newest paper. The goal is to get them to say “Really? I didn’t even know that was out yet.”


The thing about this method is that you have to do it and do it and do it. After a while your sense of the network will grow to the point that your dossier-gathering will be finished almost as soon as it starts: “Oh, someone at X studying with Y on Z? Well I guess I know what they’re up to.” Additionally, because dossier-gathering can be done in about the time it takes to read an article, it can actually be done quite quickly and as a result you get a sense of the network and it’s alignments — and by the time you have that sort of big-picture view, then honing in on the nodes is almost an after-thought. This method can be done even if you have limited access to Closed Access databases because even the most sinister Big Content publisher will give up an abstract for free. Sometimes, just the citation is all you need for big-picture purposes. And frankly, for a lot of the more decorative and scene-setting citations you do in theses and grant applications, the one-sentence overview is all you really need, but you need like fifty of them. So go forth and get mapping!

Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

10 thoughts on “It’s The People, Stupid

  1. Wow, that’s not how I did my lit reviews at all. I selected the keywords related to the topic at hand, searched for them in all the right places, then looked through their citations, found more articles, found more citations etc…until anytime I looked at a bibliography the amount of new citations I found was rare. Then I knew I’d mastered the literature. I think you cast a much wider net that way, and can find a lot of research that is tangential but ultimately beneficial to your research. Enough of the scholars in my research area have done research on so many other topics that looking through their other works would be a waste of time.

  2. I have my doubts that a good literature review is about personal networks. Maybe I am biased by several years of doing multi-disciplinary research, where it seems I am always starting new on some odd topic without much of a clue. I find myself looking for themes and topics that have varying disciplinary approaches, and the “personal networks” approach doesn’t seem like it will work.

    Amartya Sen’s capabilities notion, looking for anthropological not philosophical approaches. Collective action research dealing with ancient societies, based on data not speculation. Work on cooperation that does NOT involve game theory or evolutionary approaches.

    For things like this I live and die by Google Scholar. Sometimes I think it’s an addiction, a challenge to find the key sources and insights without spending too much time on it. Find the key paper or book XXX that is cited a zillion times, then use the extremely useful feature “search within articles citing XXX”, and limiting the results in several different ways.

    I also use the personal web pages of scholars, but I see it as a last resort or cop-out if I have to look at their CV (which is often four years out of date). Much better to find their papers posted to download, or at least a list of papers that can be located to download most quickly through Google Scholar. Or else getting annoyed by the lousy web pages and moving on to something else, and those people with poor and outdated websites and few papers listed or posted will move way down my personal “impact scale.”

    But then maybe my methods aren’t best for anthropology. One thing I’ve found is that there is a real break, a citation-gap, between the anthropological literature and that of other social sciences (at least in the kinds of things I am interested in, urbanism, empires, inequality, materialist perspectives). I often find the anthropology sources late in the game, more by accident or serendipity. The sociologists, pol scientists, et al are not citing anthro very much, and anthros are not citing this other work very much. After a lot of hunting around for materialist and comparative approaches to household quality of life (I still don’t fully understand Sen, although I want to cite him), finding lots of worthless development studies, I finally found Mathews and Izquierdo 2008 (but then it turned out to be not very helpful). But then the development literature can be very good. When I was trying to figure out just what postcolonial theory mean in social-science terms, the best paper by far was on development (Kapoor).

    This is a different strategy of searching, perhaps not the best for grad students who need to learn the anthro literature in depth, but good for the kind of transdiscipinary work I find myself doing these days.

    Kapoor, Ilan (2002) Capitalism, Culture, Agency: Dependency Versus Postcolonial Theory. Third World Quarterly 23:647-664.

    Mathews, Gordon and Carolina Izquierdo (editors) (2008) Pursuits of Happiness: Well-Being in Anthropological Perspective. Berghan, New York.

  3. This is a really interesting post, Rex. I think my strategy must be a hybrid of yours and Megan’s, above. I like to follow the citation trails to get a fix on the structure of the literature in a given field, but also conduct exhaustive keyword searching to pick up on aspects of the literature that fall outside of the mainstream, such as contributions from outside my immediate disciplinary context or older contributions that have been neglected but may have renewed relevance now. The latter strategy is probably not terribly efficient but it turns up a gem from time to time and ensures your literature review is truly comprehensive and not merely conventional or derivative of mainstream perspectives.

    The social structures discernible within the literature are interesting in their own right and we need to be aware of them, even if we choose to move beyond the method advocated here to seek more diverse foundations for our research. Citation patterns within the literature reflect scholarly genealogies that inevitably influence not only publishing and citation patterns, but collaboration, co-authorship, funding arrangements, hiring practices, and the like. We ignore them at our peril. I do not mean to imply that there is necessarily anything inappropriate about this, just to observe that academia is a social world like any other.

    In terms of my own practice, I don’t go quite as far as constructing ‘creepy’ dossiers on scholars in my field, but I do like to put together a brief ‘who’s who’ of the main players in an effort to understand the overall structure and dynamics of the field. I would be interested in hearing more about the kinds of strategies and tools others use to map the literature around their topic and to model the underlying academic ‘kinship’ or social structure of their field. Thanks again for a thought-provoking post.

  4. I think there is a big difference between different types of literature reviews. If I am trying to get a grip on something like “language ideology” it is best to follow Rex’s advice. There is a relatively closed network of linguistic anthropologists working on this topic and I can best understand it by looking at what those people are doing now. On the other hand, if I am trying to get a grip on the literature on Taiwanese Aborigines, this could be anywhere – the best paper might be a new MA written in Taiwan or a paper written in British cultural studies. Who knows? Then it is all Google Scholar. For me what is often most important, however, is discovering work which might be relevant but which isn’t part of “the literature” on that topic. There, I find that course syllabi, Twitter, Blogs, and Amazon’s “readers who bought this also bought” all help make connections I might not have made otherwise.

    I should add that I generally don’t like literature reviews the way they are written in our discipline. I would rather see deep engagement with one or two authors than a laundry list of everything written on the topic. Precisely because I can google things myself if I need to, I find I’m more interested in ideas than citations. I tell students they should think of their literature review as a conversation and should pick the conversation partners who will best help them sharpen their own arguments. That’s more important for me than proving you’ve read everything there is to read on the subject. (As long as you don’t fail to cite any key texts which bear directly on your argument.)

  5. @Michael:
    I think if you are a full professor with a career’s worth of experience embarking on interdisciplinary research without any institutional demands being made of you, then this method is probably not too helpful. But for people who are writing a thesis or grant proposal and don’t have the insta-filtering skills that a lifetime of research provide, then this is probably a good way to start.

    I like this method because it reflects the existence of a very real network of scholars who will evaluate you on grant applications, peer review, and tenure and promotion. At least, that is what my dossiers tell me.

  6. i get that this means of personal network filtering is sort of real politik of intellectual production, but it also sure is a race to unreflectively re-entrenching high social capital departments and networks.

  7. Full disclosure: Rex is my adviser.

    I love this method for getting a handle on a broad or general field. Google Scholar is overrated (but only a little bit). Trying to read a whole book or a handful of articles to figure out who a person is and what they are up to is a real slog. But downloading and cataloging a bunch of articles? Totally fun in a ‘oo that looks interesting’ kind of way. Then I get to skip reading their arguments* and just go to the bibliography to download more interesting stuff. And I can even do it for stuff my library doesn’t have access to by reading abstracts!

    *which I will do eventually once I figure out what’s worth reading.

  8. @grad student: on the contrary, this is a highly reflexive race to entrench yourself in high social capital networks and departments. Or were you hoping for advice on how to get a low-quality, poor-paying job?

    Seriously, though: you don’t have to talk about famous people in order to use this method — it works on any scholarly community. My own work focuses heavily on studies of kinship in Papua New Guinea, and many of the authors I read are not particularly well-known outside of areal circles. In fact, I think that I use this method because my scholarly network is so tightly connected and, as Kerim notes, it works best when this is the case.

    @Dick: thanks for the +1. Now go get back to work! :)

  9. Well, I know I may have missed the boat on this one seeing as this post is a few weeks old. However, I didn’t want to comment before applying this strategy to determine its appeal (if any). I just finished up a literature review, of sorts, aimed at tracking the theoretical shifts in a single researcher’s publication and lecture record in the context of the constantly shifting ‘dominant’ theoretical paradigms. Now, what I found was that this was a remarkably useful playbook for this kind of study. Scouring the CV and the resultant downloading frenzy were all extremely fulfilling. Just by identifying who they were co-authors with, or repeatedly cited (with a quick skim to see if I should put a happy face or sad face next to their names), what they were reviewing (once again – the same smily face strategy) and of course taking note of any “In response to xxxxx..” articles, I was able to build a decently comprehensive network of their theoretical allies and enemies in no time. With that in hand, I was able to engage with the literature more systematically than my usual “Google Scholar and Go” method. I could target specific issues relevant to my questions and not waste time scrolling through page 34 of my google results.

    Now, to reiterate, this was not a traditional literature review, and thus I was not restricted by a (near) complete ignorance of said literature. Quite the contrary… which I feel is where this method shines, not so much for the virgin territory type investigation. Rather, when you have an ‘eh’ understanding of the literature but want to delve deeper to a) work through a particular scholar’s theoretical or methodological trajectory, b) identify and track major trends in approaches to your topic, c) really begin to understand how particular scholars developed their approach.

    From my perspective, these so-called “personal networks” are more meaningful than I think some of the other commenters portray. I would argue their importance is rooted in gaining a deeper appreciation of the ‘why’ certain scholars are adopting (or rejecting) certain paradigms the way they are. A researcher’s intellectual development is inherently linked to where they came from (advisors, department cohort, etc) and who they have engaged with through (and thus reflected in) the literature over time. Both of those variables are more easily defined by the construction of the “personal networks.” I think when viewed like this, it really isn’t much different than the old family tree descriptions found in the introductions of those 20th editions of some seminal publication. (e.g. Boas begets Kroeber begets Steward – a lineage that wouldn’t make much sense without defining those variables) I think Michael nailed it when he hinted at grad students’ need to learn the anthro. literature in depth. Plus, Deb is spot on regarding those hidden gems in GScholar…

    Just some thoughts. But anyway, I had to comment and thank Rex for some tips that helped. Sorry I went on so long, I was thinking about this for awhile.

Comments are closed.