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.

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7 thoughts on “Annual Reviews and the Information Overload: road maps to avoid the sharp turn into the ocean

  1. It sounds like this Annual Review differs a lot from the one I did, which is a regional study. I like your emphasis on these articles acting like road maps. Which also bothers me that it wasn’t till this class that a prof recommended Annual Reviews as a good place to start when researching a topic. These would have been hugely helpful in my undergrad where you are constantly writing papers on topics that you knew almost nothing about 2 months before.
    I think the influence that Google Scholar has on what is promoted in academia is huge. I’d love to see a break down on how they select which articles make the first page, because lets be real, I hardly ever go past page 3. I am actually going to Google this now… What I find challenging is keeping up with research that is not published on an online journal. I’m referring mostly to articles compiled into books. If it is not on Google Scholar or Google Books, there is a pretty small chance of me getting a copy. Of course this sucks when your professors are old school and still believe in the ways of physically going to the library and expects you to be aware of these publications.

  2. Hello,
    I think the comment you made (“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”) truly articulates the benefit of using a forum such as annual reviews in anthropology. While this sort of article can provide a neat, mostly comprehensive overview of one’s topic of interest, it is also useful in creating a position. As you mention (via Hegmon’s analysis), writer’s often take different positions or “camps”. Once you find the position you are most in agreement with, you know which authors or direction to pursue. Additionally, you may find that a synthesis or new direction is necessary and can develop your position from that point.

    Referring to the discussion about online availability, such as google scholar and google books, I admit it is a pain to physically go to the library but luckily with inter-library loans and RACER I find most of the books that I cannot find online are available to me. (Side note: be sure to account for the time lag, sometimes the books can take weeks to arrive). I also find, (unfortunately) that the sources that are not available online can be some of the most useful. One of my hypotheses for this is that because of the extra effort needed to acquire those resources, they are not the most cited so it becomes a literature that is important but not necessarily frequently used. This can be advantageous to your argument (adding an “unknown” or “new” perspective) and worth the added effort!

    • That is true, I hadn’t really thought about sources that are not online. Although these typically do show up in a Google Scholar search, but are not accessible to read. But you are probably right that it would effect the number of times it is cited if it is a difficult resource to obtain.

  3. Your eloquent review of Hegmon’s article made me want to read it. I was particularly interested in what Hegmon had to say about elements of style and how styles of writing provide a ‘common ground’ that lets the reader know that the author is signaling that researchers can ‘talk’ to each other’s data. Sadly, this aspect was missing from the review that I did on stable isotopes. I feel that if a foundation exists or if there is an agreement of style among archaeologists, then this can act as a springboard to further discussions on different theoretical perspectives. I get a sense that Hegmon tries to unite several researchers in her review which allows an open discussion even if researcher disagree from a theoretical viewpoint. Your road map analogy was brilliant because it speaks to how new scholars can explore different directions or take a different approaches from other established researchers, without being overwhelmed by the thought of taking a risk. It is clear to me that Hegmon’s article provided all the elements that were missing from my review, including the impact of established research on future research and most importantly which directions other researcher may take. Love the clip of blasting through the literature!

  4. Hi Sally,
    “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.” Yes, that’s right. The key here, of course, is that it is a critical analysis, meaning that the authors’ voice and perspective should be a key element (much like a comprehensive exam). Like Mary, I think the map metaphor is a good one. Just like map making is never as objective as we like to pretend it is, neither is the literature review. So, the key in writing one is to be explicit about your specific reading of the content. As a reader, the essential issue is to define the position of the author.

    I think I’m going to be following up on all blogs this week with the same question (which I first asked Lori: “what about the structure of the article?…Do you get a sense of how her voice is being used? How does she draw her reader through the literature, and what thought does want you to walk away with?”

    • As to the structure, she has broken down the article into different topics within the literature on style thereby creating her own “camps” or categories which she then treats like an historical overview. She does include her own voice in the analysis typically when she mentions that certain perspectives or lines of thought didn’t really take off and were somewhat of a failure in terms of really affecting the course of the discipline. I think she wants the reader to walk away with the impression that style is fundamental to archaeology and has been highly contested which can appear that different scholars completely disagree on what style is, but this is not actually true. Scholars are unified in some fundamental approaches to style, and the critique of different approaches has expanded our understanding of what style is, does, and where it resides rather than allowing us to narrow in on a more precise and definitive definition of style.

  5. Great post Sally, your introduction was especially good at capturing my attention and highlighting the value of Annual Reviews. You mention that “there are sources that one simply needs to read to be considered knowledgeable in a given research area” – this need is (or used to be) somewhat terrifying for me. I always had this fear that I was going to miss something absolutely essential, but, my recent introduction to Annual Reviews has helped to ease this fear. You’re absolutely right, Annual Reviews are an important resource that can help to navigate the literature.

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