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Survey Research in Anthropology: Part 4 – Doing a Literature Review

Stacks of books in a hallway

So, in a previous blog post, you learned that sometimes Anthropologists use surveys during their research, to collect data on the people they are studying. In other previous blog posts, you learned how to find a research topic, narrow that topic down into a research question, and refine your research question by deciding on a population and a sample. In this blog post, we will be exploring doing a literature review. 

You might be asking yourself, what’s a literature review? A literature review is when you study all the literature on your topic (meaning journal articles, books, and so on) and write a summary of it for your research paper. It gives an overview of all the research that has been done on your topic and explains how your own research fits into that.

This blog post cannot cover everything that goes into doing a literature review–there are whole books written about this process! So, I will focus on the basics of the research portion of a literature review, which involves finding sources and taking notes on the sources.

A literature review involves learning all of the research that has been done on your topic. But, how do you do that? Just like before, you use keywords and search databases for journal articles that relate to your research question. 

But don’t stop there—for each journal article that you find, also check the list of references at the end. The reference list contains the titles of research projects that the article’s author used in doing their own background research. Browse through the reference list and look for anything that might be related to your own research, and then look up those articles, too. And then check the list of references in THOSE articles for anything that is related to your own research as well. And look up those articles, and so on and so on. 

Be especially on the lookout for an author that you see over and over in these reference lists—that may be an important researcher in the field and you’ll want to get more of their articles. 

Besides searching academic databases, you can also search the internet for information. For example, you can use your keywords to search in Google Scholar, which will bring up reputable sources of information. Just go to Another great place to find research articles is ERIC, which stands for Education Resources Information Center, and here is their website:

You’re going to want to have a good system for keeping track of which keywords you have already searched for, which databases you have already used, which articles you have already read, and which lists of references you have already checked. 

It’s easy to start losing track of things, so I suggest using a notebook or word document and making a sort of diary. Then just briefly list things you did, like “I searched the ABC database using these specific keywords,” and “I searched the XYZ database for those specific keywords.” And make some sort of list of which articles are read and which still need to be read, and a list of things to do, and so forth, to stay organized.

You’ll also want to make a system of recording notes from each source of information. Sometimes these notes are called source cards because they used to be written on 3 by 5 index cards. If you do a Google search for “source cards” and look at the images, you’ll get a lot of examples.

You can use index cards, or a notebook, or a Word document, or a database document—whatever works for you. If you want to use a database, check out Airtable, which is a free database that you can download onto your computer. Just see for more information. (Please note: I am not affiliated at all with Airtable, I’m just a happy customer!)

Use one index card or one Word page or one database file for each source. List all the bibliographic information for each source on the card or file. For example, if it is a journal article, list the author, article title, journal name, journal issue, page numbers, publication date, URL (if it has one), the date you accessed the URL, and where you found the article (which library, database, etc.).

Here’s an example of what it would look like if you used an index card. You can see how all the bibliographic information is noted on the card.

Index card with bibliographic information

Here’s an example of what it would look like if you used the Airtable database:

Airtable database
Close up view of Airtable database

It’s a good idea to put a unique code number on each source card or file, so you can refer to the article quickly and easily. I like to use a code number made out of the author’s last name, the date of the article, and the title. I use the first 3 letters of the last name, then the 4 digit date, and then the first 3 letters of the article title. So, for example, the code I’m using on the image above is KOE2014INF. That way, I can group all the papers under the same author together if I need to. Some people like to just number the cards or files consecutively, and that’s fine. Just find a system that works for you.

Now, it’s time to start taking notes on each source. Use either a new index card or a new page of your notebook or new Word document and assign that card or file a topic. Then, take notes on that topic, using the first source. Continue taking notes from source #1, using a new card or file for each different topic. Make sure to add the code on each card or file so that you know which source the information came from.

Here’s an example using our made-up influenza research project. You could have a notecard with the topic “history of influenza” on the top of it, and all the notes about the history of influenza on it from source #1, like this:

Index card with notes on it

And then you could have a notecard with the topic “transmission of influenza” on it, and then all the notes about the transmission of influenza from source #1 on it, like this:

Index card with more notes on it

Then, look at source #2. For each topic within source #2, get a new card or create a new file, and take notes. Next, do the same thing for source #3, and then source #4, and so on. Then, when it’s time to write about each topic in your research proposal or final paper, you can just grab the pile of notecards that contain all the notes for that topic and start writing.

So, that’s how to do the research portion of a literature review. Next, you’ll need to compile all the information and write about it in the literature review section of your research proposal (and final research paper).

At this point, you have a research topic and a research question defined, a population and sample chosen, and a literature review completed. Assuming you have permission from your local IRB (Institutional Review Board, which is an ethics committee), you may be ready to start your initial field research with your population. You’ll then use what you learned (in this initial field research together with your completed library research) to create the actual questions for your ethnographic survey.

Want to Learn More About Survey Research in Anthropology?

Just join my Udemy class, “Exploring Surveys in Anthropology Research: Anthropology 4U.” 

Thanks for reading!