Reed College Library Research Guide



Writing a Senior Thesis in Anthropology

Defining a Thesis Topic in Anthropology

(This section was adapted from an essay by Jacqueline Dirks, Associate Professor of History, Reed College )

Your thesis should be approximately 80-100 pages when completed. For most students, this is the longest paper they have yet written in their college careers. It is important to keep this task in perspective. Remember that you have already written many short essays and you bring this practical experience to your work here.

Topics for short papers are often assigned by the professor and are often very specific, such as comparing the arguments in two or more books. Though you may or may not like the assignment, in such cases the professor has saved you the work of defining your own topic. The senior thesis allows you to choose and refine your own topic. A longer research project also gives you an opportunity to make and support an argument, and to place your argument in the context of broader historical and anthropological debates. Learning to define a manageable topic is one of the important tools you will need when approaching this project. This is also covered in the first Anthropology Research Workshop. The workshop should help you to develop a subject and argument suitable for your senior thesis.

A topic is an area of inquiry plus a thesis about some material or proposition. You must define your inquiry so that it is broad enough to sustain a discussion of particular length yet limited enough that you will not run out of space in which to cover it. You must also develop a topic for which there are available sources, in other words, material which you can gain access to in the first months of the academic year. Ask yourself (or better, ask a reference librarian) if you will be able to get much of what you need at Reed or other Portland-area libraries, or via Interlibrary Loan.

To find a topic, you will need to think about your own interests and do some preliminary library research. One tactic is to review your own papers from previous classes, especially those essays that you felt you could have done more on. Recall anthropology books and approaches that particularly interested you, from your own reading or from previous courses. Ask yourself not only what subjects interest you, but what anthropological questions you find compelling. If you have reading or course notes, look through those to help jog your memory of discussions that interested you. A historical or ethnographic documentary that intrigued you might also be a starting point for your research. The most important aspects of a topic is that there must be available material on the subject and it must be able to sustain both your interest and a 100-page discussion.

Professor Leslie Butler (formerly of Reed, currently an Assistant Professor of History, James Madison College at Michigan State University) offers the following advice:

Once you have located a general area of interest, the next step is to read broadly in this general subject and begin to locate a topic within it. Remember that subjects and topics are not the same thing; subjects are broad fields of inquiry while topics are narrower, more focused approaches to that subject.

--The French Revolution is a subject, the response of the French clergy to the Revolution is a topic.

--American women and the industrial revolution is a subject, female unionization in the needle trades in 20th-century New York City is a topic.

--The English Civil War is a subject, the role of pamphlets in disseminating anti-royalist ideas in the 17th century is a topic.

You should be engaged in this narrowing of subject to topic from the start of your library research and construction of your bibliography. Focusing in on a topic right away will help you in the more difficult process of formulating an argument.

Once you have some general ideas for topics, jot down a paragraph which describes each topic and includes your preliminary thesis or argument. Also write down possible sources that you are aware of, key words or phrases that are associated with your topic(s), key authors or famous historical subjects. Begin your preliminary library research by using these cues. These are the notes and ideas you should bring with you to the first Anthropology Research Workshop (scheduled before the thesis proposal is due).

If you cannot find ANY works using a Library of Congress subject heading ie: "Afro-Americans-- New York--History -- 20th Century," a key word or phrase "Great Depression and Family," talk to one of Reed's reference librarians. For other steps in how to do library research, return to the Anthropology Research home page.

The first place to look for material on your subject is the Reed Library, especially in the reference room or at the computerized card catalog. It is essential to begin by identifying some of the primary and secondary sources on your general topic. The first Anthropology Research Workshop is designed to give you the tools to begin such a search.

Note that your topic will evolve and change as you do more research. This is part of the process. Because of this evolution, it is a good idea to learn how to take notes and develop some organized way of keeping track of your changing ideas. One technique is to buy a blank notebook, keep it with you, and use it to jot down your ideas, relevant sources, etc. Another is to begin as soon as possible to database your notes in a user-friendly program such as Filemaker or Endnote. For on-line help with note-taking, click here. Consider too participating in the session for Anthropology thesis writers introducing students to the use of these programs.

Composing a bibliography is a key step in identifying and assessing sources. Done well, a bibliography will help you identify, modify and refine your topic and argument and allow you to organize a large amount of information. Your note-taking should include complete bibliographic information in the standard styles required in anthropology. For on-line help with citation formats click here. Beginning this as soon as possible, when you first pick up a source to read it, will save you much time and anxiety later.


Approaching a senior thesis in any major can be an intimidating prospect. However, like most large tasks, the thesis is much more manageable if you take it one step at a time and seek guidance from advisors and peers.

What is a senior thesis? You may want to look at some anthropology theses in the library to get an idea for the scope of projects that recent seniors have undertaken. Click here for a list a recent topics. There is a lot of variation in Reed senior theses, but successful ones are nearly always based on a central question. Investigating this question may lead you to review the research of others, to synthesize others' work in new ways, or to conduct theoretical or empirical research on your own. Sometimes the outcome of a thesis can be a detailed proposal for further research that the author thinks would provide a better answer than is available at present. In its most basic form, your thesis should be an argument, using tools or research and reasoning appropriate to the field of anthropology, in response to the central question you have chosen to investigate.

Producing a thesis can be broken down into a series of stages, as outlined below. Each stage involves a substantial amount of work and, to some degree, must be completed before the following stages can proceed. Steady progress throughout the year is crucial to a successful thesis. Students who achieve the benchmarks for progress set by the department and their advisors are usually able to minimize the amount of stress arising at the second-semester deadlines.

Beginning in Fall 2002, the anthropology department, in conjunction with the library, has established a series of research workshops for senior thesis writers. These workshops are designed to get you started on your thesis work early in the year and to help you ulilize available resources most efficiently. The first workshop comes several weeks before the thesis proposal is due in late September. Click here for more information.

Stages of the Thesis

Students who have qualified at the end of their junior year or equivalent will be expected to begin work on the thesis immediately following the successful completion of the qualifying examination. Ideally, students will have taken the examination in April and will have provided the Department with a rough account of the proposal they intend to consider before leaving campus in the spring.

Thesis Proposal

Registration for the thesis takes place in the fall of the senior year. The thesis should constitute one-quarter of the student’s total load and should be done along with a regular academic program. The Division of History and Social Sciences establishes a date, usually a date early in October when thesis proposals are due to the Division.

The proposal is an account of the nature of the problem to be studied and of the resources available to undertake that study. In some cases, the proposal will also need to establish the "fitness" of the student to undertake the thesis project described. The proposal usually consists of two or three pages with an attached bibliography. Obviously, you should submit your proposal only after discussions with an adviser and perhaps additional faculty as well. For on-line help with choosing a topic, click here. For help with your thesis proposal, be sure to participate in the anthropology research workshops. The first workshop is designed to help you choose a topic and formulate your proposal.

When your proposal is accepted, the Department of Anthropology chooses a thesis supervisor for you who will also act as your academic adviser, whether or not he or she has served in that capacity in the past. You and your advisor are responsible for proposing a realistic, feasible thesis. Theses that require extensive field research must be begun between the junior and senior years. Though such theses may require some work that extends into the senior year, you should never expect to conduct substantial field research while writing the thesis. Most of your fieldwork should be done before the beginning of the first semester of registered thesis course work.

You should give serious thought to the availability of published materials. While the library is able to order some special books needed in addition to interlibrary loan, the need to purchase quantities of materials may rule out certain kinds of otherwise perfectly legitimate thesis topics. The first research workshop will help you begin to assess what kinds of resources are available for the topics you are considering.

It is sometimes necessary, at the Ph.D. level, to move about among libraries in order to conduct research, but that is not realistic and is not expected for a thesis at the B.A. level. Interlibrary loan materials, of course, can be made available to upper divisional students. Even the best libraries might not be able to handle some rather esoteric topics; these should be avoided for anthropology theses at the B.A. level.

Writing The Thesis

The due date of the first draft of the thesis is determined by the Division of History and Social Sciences and will be transmitted to you at the beginning of the fall semester. The due date for the proposal is usually late September, and the date for the first draft is sometime around spring break.

Reviewing the Relevant Literature

All scholars in anthropology build on the shoulders of others. The first step of your thesis research is to search broadly and deeply to find out what others have discovered about your question. There are many resources available at Reed to help you with this search. The first is your thesis advisor and other members of the faculty, who may be able to point you to prominent pieces of research that bear on your thesis. Another important new resource are the Anthropology Research Workshops, which are designed to give you the necessary tools to conduct this search as efficiently as possible. If you cast your net broadly at the beginning, you are less likely to be surprised at the end to find that someone else has done research that diminishes the impact or credibility of your own work.

As you begin reading for your thesis, you should also begin writing. A thesis is usually a much larger project than a course paper and the strategy that has worked well for you on course papers may not work as well for the thesis. In contrast to course papers, the thesis is written over nine months and many students read hundreds of articles and books in the early stages of research. This is too much information and too long a time to keep track of it all.

A better strategy is to begin writing the thesis the same day you begin reading for it. Keep detailed notes on everything you read, including full bibliographic information in the appropriate format. (Be very sure that your notes distinguish between the author's words and your own. Plagiarism can arise inadvertently if a student uses in the thesis a passage from his or her notes without realizing that it was a near-exact quotation copied into the notes months earlier.) Photocopy all passages you think you might want to quote and any tables that contain useful data. The notes you make as you read can be the basis of your literature-review chapter, which is the first piece of your thesis. For on-line help on note-taking click here. Consider participating in the optional session for anthropology majors on using databases to organize your notes.

Submitting The First Draft

The first draft is described in detail in a memorandum issued by the Division. You should understand that the first draft deadline has been instituted in order to provide a more coherent thesis at the end of the year’s work. A second reader from the Division, but not necessarily from the Department of Anthropology, is chosen. If there is someone who is particularly suited to judge your thesis work, other than your adviser, you should make that known early in the year in which the thesis is being written and to talk with the reader in advance of the first draft deadline. When the reader has completed his work on the draft, he will meet with you to discuss the work and to provide you with some comments and criticisms for revisions.

The first draft must be a completed draft including an abstract, bibliography and notes. The thesis may be altered with the agreement of the thesis adviser, following this initial due date. However, the rules of the Division suggest that the thesis presented must be in some final form whether or not that is the form that the thesis ultimately takes.

Some students now provide acknowledgments in the thesis of persons who have assisted during the preparation of the document. It is advisable to omit these acknowledgments in the draft of the thesis, as well as in the thesis that goes to the Orals Committee. If you wish to include acknowledgments, provide those in the final copy as it goes to the bindery.

Two copies of the thesis should be submitted to the Divisional Secretary before the deadline, which is indicated each year by a memorandum from the Division. When the thesis is given to the adviser, he or she will initial the thesis indicating that it has been completed. The Division has a Certification Form, which must be completed with a more detailed account of thesis progress. However, you should see your thesis supervisor before the thesis is given to the Divisional Secretary.

When the thesis is given to the first reader, please be prepared to give that reader at least one week before getting back to you with comments. Some thesis advisers prefer to talk with the reader before talking to the students about the thesis, but that is a matter of personal preference. The intention of the enforced first draft deadline is to permit students to re-engage in their normal academic work for the final month of their final semester at Reed. Do not expect to do major work or major repair on the thesis except as indicated by the adviser after that first draft deadline.

The Final Draft

The Registrar’s Office insists that the thesis be approved by the thesis adviser before it is submitted to the Registrar. It is the responsibility of the students to see to it that the thesis adviser has sufficient time to see the thesis and approve it before the Registrar’s deadline. Do make those arrangements beforehand. The final draft of the thesis has to be initialed by the thesis adviser and is initialed on a separate piece of paper or an envelope containing the thesis—not the document itself.

It is also the responsibility of the student to see to it that the thesis final draft is distributed to members of the Orals Committee in time for them to be able to read it before the orals. That is to say, deliver the thesis to all committee members immediately after visiting the Registrar’s Office with your completed thesis. There are two main members of the Committee: the adviser and the first reader. There is an additional member of the thesis committee provided by the Division of History and Social Sciences. Ordinarily, the third member is determined by the Divisional officers in terms of scheduling commitments. A fourth member of the Committee is normally taken from among the faculty members from other divisions. The student should invite that fourth person several months in advance. This will allow sufficient time to see that it is possible to include the thesis orals in that last week when most people have extremely heavy schedules. Sometimes, because of the special nature of a thesis, a student will want to invite a fifth person from off campus who has some expertise in the area of the thesis subject matter. The student is again responsibility for inviting the fifth person and for providing that person with a copy of the thesis sufficiently far in advance so that the visitor may read the thesis before the oral.

The Orals

The Division of History and Social Sciences considers the orals to be an in-depth review of the thesis text. You should be prepared to review the thesis project and to answer questions as they arise. The thesis adviser is there to assist you and should not be seen as a prominent part of the thesis examination. This is the work of the first reader and the visiting members of the Committee.

At the end of the thesis orals, you will be asked to leave the room and return in a few minutes following the deliberation of the Committee. It is at that time that the thesis itself will be signed on the page provided following the title page. Please provide multiple copies of the signature page ON ARCHIVAL PAPER at the time of the oral examination, to avoid having to track down your adviser for more signatures a week later when you have prepared the library copy.

If you are required to make substantial revisions in the thesis, the signature must await those revisions. Normal routine revisions, however, can be made following the signature. Once the oral is over, you take the revised thesis to be bound and must fulfill the obligation to take the thesis to the library on the date assigned. One copy of the thesis goes to the thesis adviser.

Department Memos


Senior Thesis Policy

The Divisional thesis policy was adopted several years ago in order to make this full year course more successful and rewarding for both faculty and students. The policy aims at encouraging an early start on the thesis project; providing opportunities to obtain faculty advice; and confining each semester of thesis work to a one unit load, particularly in the last month of the semester, when other classes can suffer if thesis work has only commenced.

Senior Advisers:

Each senior’s thesis adviser shall be his or her academic adviser. If the thesis adviser assigned by the Department is not also the general adviser, the student should file a change of adviser notice, available at the Registrar’s Office.

Thesis Proposal and Choice of First Draft Reader:

The deadline for submitting thesis proposals for Spring 2006 is noon on Monday, September 26, 2005. Deliver four (4) copies of a one page description of the thesis project (one for the Division, one for the Department, one for the thesis adviser and one for the first draft reader) including a title, and the name of the faculty adviser to Lois Hobbs, CC-112. Please note that all thesis proposals need to have been approved by the student’s Department prior to being presented to the Division.

At this time and after consulting with their thesis advisees, faculty advisers will relay the names of proposed first draft readers to the Divisional Officers, who will review the proposals to prevent faculty members from carrying a combined overload as thesis advisers and first draft readers. After this review, the Division shall notify students, in writing, of the receipt of their proposals and the name of their adviser and first draft reader.

The Division shall also inform first draft readers of the students assigned to them, and provide a copy of their thesis proposals. By Fall Recess, each Department shall have arranged at least one meeting between each thesis student and his or her thesis adviser and first draft reader. The meeting shall review the student’s progress since submitting the thesis proposal. Prior to the first draft deadline, the degree and kind of involvement of first draft readers is voluntary and likely to vary with departmental practice and the needs of individual thesis projects. The role of the first draft reader should be discussed by the adviser and thesis student early in the first semester.

First Draft:

Two copies of the first draft (which does not need to be initialed by the adviser) must be delivered to Lois Hobbs, CC-112, on Friday, March 24, 2006, by 12 noon. The Faculty Secretary will record receipt of the thesis on a Thesis First Draft Certification Form. Ms. Hobbs (not the student) will deliver one copy of the thesis to the adviser and the other to the first draft reader. Your adviser is responsible for certifying that your draft meets the criteria for a first draft by completing and returning the First Draft Certification Form. (A sample of the form is attached in order to remind you of the Division’s definition of a first draft.) If the adviser cannot check the "yes" box in all cases or judges the thesis to be of failing quality, the student has missed the first draft deadline. During the week following submission of the thesis, the student should arrange a meeting with the first draft reader to receive comments on the draft.

The Division will recommend for graduation only students who have met the Divisional first draft deadline. This means if a student misses this deadline, but still meets the College final draft deadline; he or she will not graduate until the following semester. The student, in this case, will not be liable for special late fees and his or her transcript will show the date on which requirements for graduation are met. The only grounds for an extension of the rough draft deadline, by petition to the Division, are acute illness and very serious emergencies like the sudden unavailability of essential research materials or computer breakdowns beyond the control of the student.

Final Version:

Four (4) copies of the final version of the thesis (initialed by the thesis adviser) are due at the Registrar’s Office by 3 p. m. on Friday, April 28, 2006.

Division of History and Social Sciences Thesis Policy
Approved May, 1976; modified May, 1994

Created by: Dena Hutto, Social Sciences Librarian