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!