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Working with Sources

Properly incorporating and attributing your sources is fundamental to making a strong argument while also ensuring that your work is responsible. Matters like the formatting of in-text citations and bibliographies, the difference between summarizing and paraphrasing, and the importance of avoiding the kinds of sloppy composition practices that can lead to unintentional plagiarism can be found in the "Harvard Guide to Using Sources."

However, this page - excerpted and adapted from Lahiri, Mahmud and Herron (2007)'s Guide - will focus on the substantive use of sources and some distinctive ways that anthropologists and archaeologists tend to engage their sources. 

"Sources of What...?"

Fundamentally, the material we use as our sources do not exist solely as reference works—we make them sources when we use them as foundations for our own claims. Like Gordon Harvey (whose essay entitled “Sources of What?” we have liberally redacted here), we think that when it comes to using sources, attending to function — what are they sources of — should take precedence over tinkering with form (or mechanics).

So how do you begin locating works that can serve as useful, rich sources? Fortunately, Harvey also offers some practical pointers, noting that there are really only four possible kind of answers to the questions, "Sources of what?"

① A source can function as a claim, opinion, or interpretation that someone else has made of your topic. Ethnographies, field reports, and anthropological essays are good places to look for sources that make claims.

② A source can provide fact, information, or data that is either reported first-hand or acquired and summarized from elsewhere. This category could include your own observations and experiences from field work or an object as well as statistics or observations produced by other sources. 

 ③ A source can provide a general concept, ranging from something as small as a useful term or definition or something as large as a predictive model or explanatory theory. Often these kinds of sources span across disciplines, including works by psychologists, sociologists, economists, etc.

 ④A source can serve as a comparable instance of the thing you are discussing. For example, an anthropologist writing about a different culture may have a different take on performativity than you do, which you could incorporate in order to make a counterargument. Or an archaeological paper could present an interpretation of burial goods in one context that could support your own claims.

One source, many functions

The kind of thing a source provides is only part of how it functions. The other part is the writers’ disposition towards it. 

Harvey’s notion that the very existence of a source is contingent upon how we use it rather than autonomous has other important consequences — such as the fact that the same source can serve a different function in another paper. Additionally, the same source can also play multiple roles within the same paper. For example, a source that provides a specific social model often deploys that model within a specific societal context. Social theorist Pierre Bourdieu proposed a "language market" model that he used to examine the standardization of language in France. A student could therefore employ the model within his own work as well as using Bourdieu's example of French standardization as a comparable instance. 

Staking a position

The devil is always in the details, and these maneuvers call for sensistivity to similarity and difference, to what fits and what doesn’t, to opportunities for carving out your own complex stance.

Stepping back now a bit, the third lesson we can draw from Harvey is that is that the kind of thing a source provides is only part of how it functions. The other part is the writers’ disposition towards it. Does he affirm, accept, or assimilate it? Does he reject, challenge, or differentiate it? Or does he qualify it — accepting it with a refinement, adjustment, or tweak?

Think of your work entering into a dialogue with other writers via their texts. As in a dialogue with a peer or professor, think about how you would respond to their claims, what evidence you would use to refute or support what they say, and how they might respond to your own claims. As in a dialogue, don't be afraid to contradict or criticize, but be prepared to refer to specific elements of their argument to make your own case.

Locating the Right Sources

Make sure to familiarize yourself with the resources available at Harvard Libraries. Librarians are happy to schedule tours and training sessions to help you learn about the library system and electronic resources. Tozzer Library on Divinity Avenue is the official anthropology library at Harvard, where you will find most of the ethnographies and anthropological journals that you will need for your anthropology courses and a knowledgeable staff to assist you.

One of the major challenges of bibliographic research is not only to find sources but to discern appropriate sources. What if you decide to write about the spread of HIV/Aids in South Africa among urban youth, and a preliminary keyword search for your topic on a library database returns over 1000 hits? Your challenge will be to discriminate among those results, and find the most helpful and authorative ones. Here are some things to consider when evaluating a source:

  •  Is it Peer-Reviewed? Anything published in a peer-reviewed anthropological journal is probably a good bet. If a source you found is not peer-reviewed, you might want to check with your instructor to determine if it is appropriate. Major peer-reviewed anthropology journals include: American Anthropologist; American Ethnologist; Public Culture; Anthropological Quarterly; Current Anthropology; Cultural Anthropology.
  •  Who Published It? If your source is a book, make sure that it is published by an academic press (i.e., anything with a University name, as well as independent academic presses, such as Routledge). When in doubt, ask your instructor!
  • Glean Citations Wisely. Once you have found a good source, you can look at its bibliography to find additional texts. Similarly, after you have found a few good sources, you can compare their bibliographies to look for overlaps. If you notice that a particular text seems to be cited by everyone else writing on the same topic, then you should probably get hold of that text too.
  • Use Online Resources. JSTOR, Anthrosource, and Project Muse can be accessed from the Harvard Libraries website. The web- based Google Scholar is also worth a try. 


Text on this page adapted from
Lahiri, Smita; Mahmud, Lilith; and Herron, James. 2010.
A Student’s Guide to Reading and Writing in Social Anthropology.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard College.