Annual Reviews and the Information Overload: road maps to avoid the sharp turn into the ocean

Academics, the inexperienced and veterans alike, face the problem of information overload. In an age where the internet connects us all to a plethora of sources at our fingertips we are limited only by time and energy, not resources. However, it’s not simply a matter of spending more time reading through an ever expanding corpus of information. The internet has also, to some extent, democratized knowledge. Thus, not only is there too much to read, there are fewer barriers to information that “mark” the authoritative sources from the rest. In a Google Scholar search you will likely have a starting point from which to navigate through your topic, with numerous scholarly peer-reviewed articles. But, what isn’t readily apparent, is not all articles are made alike, there are sources that one simply needs to read to be considered knowledgeable in a given research area. Aside from the number of times an article has been referenced there will be little information in your Google Scholar search to sort through the most important and key articles for your particular topic.

This is where articles in the Annual Review become crucial to navigating your way through the key debates and players of your field/topic. In this blog I am going to look at Michelle Hegmon’s article “Archaeological research on style” in the Annual Review of Anthropology. The purpose is to describe how she goes about not only summarizing, but reviewing the knowledge of a particular field, providing a critical analysis of what has been done so far using her expertise to provide others with a road map.

Hegmon, M. (1992). Archaeological research on style. Annual Review of Anthropology21, 517-536.

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Blastin’ through the literature at a leisurely pace

Her article covers the subject of “style”, which in archaeological research covers a very broad range of meanings and uses from the very inception of the discipline. She provides a brief introduction to the topic and her initial thoughts of some of the broadly shared features of the use/definitions of style she recognized while doing her literature review. She noticed that archaeologists generally do agree on what style means at the very least providing a “common ground”, and furthermore the definitions of style all have two basic tenets: “style is a way of doing something”, and “style involves a choice among various alternatives” (pp.517-18). This lets the reader know that there is a common element between various approaches that they can look for when doing their own research. It also says, despite what may be variation in the literature, the differences do not mean the literature is mutually exclusive. In other words, researchers can and do “talk” to each others data and it’s possible to find aspects you will agree or disagree on without disregarding an entire body of literature. Hegmon also explicitly highlights certain aspects that have become so pervasive within the discipline that they are “taken-for-granted”. For instance, Wobst (1977) information-exchange theory on style was a pivotal turning point in the literature, but the idea that style can convey messages, or meaning is generally accepted that Wobst is no longer always cited.

Another important aspect of the review article is to mention explicitly where researchers have recognized problems or critiques of previous perspectives/theories that they are actively addressing. For instance, Hegmon (1992) mentions that researchers have had difficulty bridging the gap between human activity/behaviour and material culture variation in studies of style. This problem has not gone unnoticed, she cites authors that have been actively engaged with solving the issue as well as summarizing how they are going about it. Not all researchers are solving the issues in the same way, and she has organized researchers into three “camps” that are following similar approaches. What this does for the new scholar is give them a road map. They can either pursue one direction or another, or if they have already read an author mentioned by Hegmon they are able to know which other authors are doing similar research, and which authors (despite looking at style) are taking a very different approach. Therefore, the new scholar has a better idea of where to focus their attention, limiting the amount of sources required (which really, let’s be honest is everyone’s goal).

This road map is given more detail and navigation signs by specifically talking about the authors that are key players and/or instrumental in the development of new ideas, or authors that build off of and/or directly critique previous authors. In Hegmon’s article she highlights Dietler & Herbich (1989) for “devot[ing] considerable effort to criticizing the information-exchange approach” of Wobst (pp. 521). She then describes the research and conclusions that allowed them to test the hypothesis/assumptions of the information-exchange theory, finishing with highlighting important aspects that were produced through this dialogue. In this case what was recognized is that information-exchange theory does not account for all variation, but is not invalid. Also Dietler & Herbich’s (1989) critique recognize that production and perpetuation of style was overlooked in the initial theory, therefore bringing in learning and tradition perspectives to the study of style.

Hegmon, in her review article, provides more detailed signage, with a critical description of the different terms for looking at variability in style. Different researchers have created terminology to better define their approach to looking at variation in style. Macdonald, for example, draws from Wiessner’s terms emblemic (distinct referent) and assertive (vague referent), and tweaks it slightly and redefines his term as protocol (group identity) and panache (individual identity). What Hegmon’s analysis does is provide, not only a description/summary of the various terms, but how they are different and similar, and also makes connections between the researchers (who is building off of whom’s work).

In final, Hegmon’s review provides the reader with information about, who the key players are, and what the key sources are that had a significant impact on future research, what that impact was, and in which directions other researchers took by responding to the introduction of the new perspective. Essentially, it is a road map that allows a new scholar to navigate through an overload of information of both relevant and less relevant sources with far more road signs than they would have if they were set adrift in the sea of literature provided by a Google Scholar search.

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Watch out for that wrong turn!

References

Dietler, M., Herbich, I. (1989). Tich Matek: the technology of Luo pottery production and the definition of ceramic style. World Archaeology. 21:148-64.

Hegmon, M. (1992). Archaeological research on style. Annual Review of Anthropology21, 517-536.

Wobst, H. M. (1977). Stylistic behavior and information exchange. In For the Director: Research Essays in Honor of James B. Griffin, ed. C. B. Cleland, pp. 317-42. Ann Arbor: Mus. Anthropol. Anthropol. Pap. 61, Mus. Michigan.

First Journal Article

I have already put very many hours into my MRP (Masters Research Project) and want to get at least one publication out of all that work. My MRP was a study of ceramics at Huaca Colorada, Peru, a Late Moche settlement. I did a statistical analysis (chi-squared) of the distribution of ceramic types (style and forms) looking at the difference in culinary practices (and feasting) between the more domestic sectors and the ceremonial architecture at the summit of the Huaca. I was in charge of data collection of around 6,000 sherds which I organized into categories to test their various distribution. This means that I have a lot of data which I think is a good place to start for an initial journal article, and then to build from there for future publications.

Nawpa Pacha is the journal I am intersted in publishing in.

http://instituteofandeanstudies.org/publications.html

With a note on publishing style:

http://instituteofandeanstudies.org/style.html

Nawpa Pacha is a strictly Andean archaeological journal with lots of data and some interpretation. But, it does not focus heavily on theory which for a foundational article for myself I am happy with that decision. There also seems to be a lot of room for images which is important because I have to describe ceramics that have received little attention previously and there are few examples of in the literature to date. The articles are not very long, about 8 pages of text and around 15 in total with illustrations and references.

My timeline is to follow the course since that gives me incentive, otherwise I will probably put it off. To start, I would like to look at my data and decide if there are pieces that are not integral to a short paper on feasting, since I did probably more analysis of the ceramics than were required for a single question. I’d then need to trim the corresponding theoretical and interpretive analysis out and narrow in on the one topic. After that is done it will all need to be rewritten to fit with the format, but also because it would need to be a cohesive paper. My writing needs to be less rambling, as well. I had a lot more room to elaborate on ideas, even if they were somewhat tangential to the core of the thesis. My weekly goal is to devote 2 afternoons a week ~4 hours each (Monday and Wednesday) and Sunday morning ~3 hours to writing. I am pretty concerned I won’t stick with this schedule, since I rarely stick with any schedule. Luckily, I don’t need to devote a lot of time to research since I’ve already done that, I think the hardest part will just to get STARTED!

Edit to add:

My outline is very tentative still, this is my rough draft of my outline:

Abstract: 100 words

Introduction: 1-2 pages

– Description of time period and site and the relationship to the broader regional trends at this time. In particular that the Late Moche period is one of flux and change, how my research contributes to this discussion.

Description of ceramics

– What we found and why it is important. Huaca Colorada is significant because we found large quantities of highland ceramics in this coastal settlement, but there is also coastal hybridizations of highland ceramic styles.

Analysis of Ceramics

– Describing the chi-squared analysis of the ceramics and the results as they relate to feasting and ceremonial/political practices at the site.

Interpretations

– What do the results of the analysis tell us about wider regional patterns happening at this time.

My (Writing) Fortress of Solitude

Fortress of Solitude Secrets

This weeks post is a reflection on my writing process and what I need to get those term papers, grant proposals, and thesis statements finished. You’re probably wondering why I’m talking about Superman, but we’ll get to that in a minute.

From undergrad, to masters, to PhD my writing process has, not surprisingly, changed. It used to be that I could sit down and write a 15 page paper in a single night and hand that in for an A, no problem. Of course, in undergrad I rarely worried about whether I was citing the “right” author and I especially never worried about an instructor judging my intellect based on a single piece of work. Typically my main concern was whether my writing was “good”, that is, was my thesis clear, did I support my thesis with enough/adequate evidence, and was my spelling/grammar passable?

This all changed for me, and I suspect many others when they started Graduate School. Now in addition to worrying about my writing style and skills I worry about whether I have enough sources researched (and the correct ones), whether I’ve properly understood their arguments, not only whether my argument makes sense, but does it contradict or confirm the prevailing thoughts within the discourse? This is in truth only a partial list of the things I worry about during the writing process. This change in attitude has affected my writing process. I tend to spend a lot more time on the research phase, convincing myself that I am not ready to put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) until I’ve read a few more sources. This works all right for term papers, but will not serve me well when writing my thesis later on. There’s no possible way to do “all” your research before writing and then expect to sit down and hammer out a few hundred pages. The second-most important change has been how closely I refer to other sources while writing. In undergrad I read the sources and thought about how I could make them talk to each other, then I sat down and did it. Now, I have to constantly check and double-check what the authors said to carefully include their thoughts into the prevailing topic of the paper. This often means having the source up on my screen during the writing process.

One thing has remained fairly constant, however is: My Writing Fortress of Solitude.

In order to mentally prepare myself for the task I require an environment that is my own sanctum. This is why I can’t write in libraries or at my office, typically I prefer writing at home where I feel the most comfortable. More than that, though I need a large block of time (preferably the whole day/night) that is devoted to myself and my writing with no concerns about interruptions. This is typically the biggest obstacle because as you can imagine finding an entire day, let alone multiple entire days, where minor distractions or errands don’t come up is more than a little wishful thinking. What tends to happen is I will ignore those minor distractions as much as possible, for as long as possible. BUT, those minor distractions can be used as an excuse to derail my writing process when my desire to get that paper started early trumps my desire to, well, NOT work on that paper. Plus some things can’t be ignored such as when you get an urgent e-mail requiring your immediate attention.

solitude

I’d like to keep my fortress of solitude and not have it go the way of the “ancient relic”. It’s comforting to have my material possessions around me to look at while I write as a minor distraction from the inside of my brain. It would, however, be nice to sit down when I have even a couple hours and work on my writing assignment. I’d get little bits done over a longer period of time that would improve not only my mental state, but my writing as well, because it would give me time to think about what I am writing/have written.

I could go on in minute detail about my writing process, but these are some of the major issues I encounter that I will be attempting to tackle before getting too far into my PhD and finding that my old ways are too antiquated.