Topic Development

In the undergraduate anthropology program, you will encounter assignments that require you to develop your own research projects. The first step, of course, is to choose a topic! However, the seemingly infinite research opportunities present a unique challenge. You must learn to focus your interests and come up with a research question that is intellectually rigorous while also feasible and appropriate for the scope of the project. The benefit of this process is that you will be able to spend time answering a question that is exciting to you, and to explore topics otherwise not covered in most classes. Below we've listed a few strategies to help you move through the research process.


💡Choose a topic


📝 appropriate scope



One way to go about choosing a topic is to start with something covered in class. Was there an assigned reading that you found particularly intriguing? Did one of the sections of the syllabus touch on an issue you have always wanted to learn more about? You can start with a text or texts from the class and ask yourself what made them stand out for you. Was it the writing style? The subject matter? An intellectual debate they were contributing to? Once you have pinpointed your interests, you can start to explore and define them further through additional research.


Marissa Houlahan '17
Sublime to Shipbreaking

Cengiz Cemaloglu '18
Language & Culture


Anthropological research is grounded not only in academic materials, but also in personal interests. Your own experiences, values, hobbies, and longtime pursuits can and should inform work that is important to you. Personal interests can springboard into larger academic issues, so think creatively about what drives you. 

Alle Have_To_Get_lastname 'XX
Obessed with Viking



Let’s say you come across several media articles on the growing demand for financial services in various Asian countries, and your interest is piqued. You do a scholarly search and you get too many hits; besides none of them look very anthropological. So you decide to specify your interest a bit more: are you going to look at the rise of mortgage brokerages? Investment advisors? No, it’s hard to see what the cultural angle would be. You decide that life insurance might be a better prospect, figuring that people new to the practice might have mixed feelings about essentially making a bet with a company about how soon they might die. Going back to Google and Google Scholar, you get more promising results: you find media stories about a life insurance ad campaign in India and about the increasing tendency of Indonesian pilgrims going on Haj to take out insurance policies. Google Scholar provides a number of references to articles in business journals (which may or may not be helpful), as well as a couple in of articles in anthropology journals. Bingo! You may have found a viable topic.

Once you have arrived at a promising topic, you are ready to start elaborating your ideas. At this early stage, it is important to make sure that the project you set yourself is feasible as well as relevant.

Is my topic feasible?

To make a topic feasible you will need to have a ‘motivating question’ (e.g., a thesis to prove or a question to answer) that can be addressed within the space provided. For instance, what is feasible in a 90-page senior thesis would be too much in a 7-page paper, and vice versa. Usually, the shorter the page limit, the more specific your motivating question will need to be. For instance, if you are interested in indigenous land rights and human rights but you are only expected to write a 15-page paper, you may want to choose a specific court case through which you can examine how a particular group asserted their rights to the land. If you were to opt, instead, for a broad overview of indigenous land rights movements worldwide, your 15-page paper might end up rather shallow.

In addition to any requirements or guidelines your course might have, your topic will also need to fall squarely within the scope of anthropology. Because anthropology is such a broad field, you will not find yourself too constrained. Bear in mind, however, that not every question that motivates you will be appropriate. If you are interested, for instance, in writing about the Kennedy dynasty and their presence in the political life of the United States for your 20-page seminar paper, you will need to ensure that your motivating question falls within the purview of anthropology rather than, say, political science. If you were to ask something along the lines of “how the Kennedy name affects a candidate’s likelihood to be elected,” your question, though important, is unlikely to culminate in an illuminating anthropological analysis. Instead, your question might be something like this: “how are cultural and social capital transmitted within the Kennedy’s dynastic kinship structure?”


Is my topic relevant?

Be prepared for the possibility that your focus and motivation may shift during this phase of discovery as you learn more about your (still provisional) topic. Few scholars can execute a lengthy writing project without hitting a dead end or going off on a wild goose chase but do consider taking one or more of the following steps to avoid veering too far off track.

Conduct a Preliminary Bibliographic Search. Before settling on a topic, spend some time at the library. What if you found a very interesting topic, but nobody else has ever written about it? Unless you are tackling a large, independent project, such as a senior thesis, and you can count on a lot of expert help, it would probably be best to stay clear of subjects about which there is no literature available. A trip to the library or an online library search are important first steps when assessing the feasibility of a topic. Useful information about navigating Harvard's resources and working with sources can be found here. (link link link to resource tab)

Seek Advice. Your instructor and/or teaching fellow should be your first stop when seeking help regarding your paper. If you are trying to learn more about a topic, though, it may also be worth it to you to talk to someone who specializes in the topic you are researching. We are fortunate to have prominent scholars walk the halls of our department every day, and it is very likely that the authors of some of the texts you are studying are faculty members. Why not go and to talk to them directly about their research? Check the department website for a list of all our faculty members and graduate students as well as brief descriptions of their research interests and publications. If you see someone whose life’s work has been about the topic you picked for your paper, sign up for office hours or send a politely worded email to ask for an appointment or to pose a brief question.