When you start on a PhD, or indeed on any new research project, there’s always a lot of reading to be done. It’s easy to lose track of what this reading is for and to forget why engaging with all of the extant literatures is important. So a brief recap – reading is the way in which we:
1. understand the history of the field and the key figures in it
2. find what has already been said about our proposed area of research
3. establish which prior research we can build on
4. identify any debates we might want to enter
5. ascertain if there is any research we want to challenge.
A helpful metaphor for orienting yourself to scholarly reading in general, and to all of the reading that has to be done for the PhD in particular, is tracing the family tree. Think of all that reading as a process of tracking down your ancestors.
Most of us are familiar with the notion of genealogy – the process of researching your own background, where you come from. We are probably also all familiar with the television version of finding your family tree, the one where celebrities are helped by professional genealogists to find their forebears. Their family tree work usually starts with parents and then grandparents. Tracking through census, births, deaths and marriage records (where these exist) often reveals surprising or sad – and equally often pretty ordinary – past lives which, the television programmes inevitably claim, have made the celebrities who and what they are.
Engaging with the literatures can be thought of as developing your research family tree. For instance, reading the literatures allows you trace various key influences on your work – you can map what you have inherited from your forebears. You can signal these inheritances so that readers can understand what material is yours alone and what is gleaned from what others have done. You can locate family squabbles – you might decide to ignore these, or to be part of them. You can also indicate branches of the family that have gone off on their own and have become estranged – you may or may not wish to reconnect with them. You might also want to look at the ways in which broader social events connect with your individual heritage to see how your family trajectory has been patterned and shaped.
Now, the family you are discovering through the reading you are doing is an intellectual one. The object of all of your reading is to find out what intellectual traditions your work is based in, what it refers to and uses. While you are reading you are also tracing connections, lines of development and ruptures, and family likenesses. You are lining up with particular vectors of thinking and of actually doing research. You are finding out who you are as a scholar, and taking your place in a line of thinking and writing.
And my own intellectual tracking here? I thought of the metaphor of the family tree while watching a youtube clip by Dr George Patton from Waldon University. He talks about the literature review as an intellectual history. I’ve taken that idea and built on it, just a bit. I recommend watching the whole clip, it’s not that long, as Patton goes into helpful detail about the ways in which the literature review functions as an intellectual history.