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Research Topics

At many different points in your study of Anthropology, you will encounter assignments that require you to develop your own research projects. How do you move forward with a topic that interests you and is relevant to study.

The task is to come up with a research question that is intellectually rigorous while also feasible and appropriate for the scope of the paper or 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. The following section is excerpted and adapted from Lahiri, Mahmud, and Herron (2007)'s Guide.

❶ Choose a topic

  • Work from a class topic

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? What made this stand out for you? Once you have pinpointed your interests, you can start to explore and define them further through additional research.

  • Personal interests

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.


Cengiz Cemaloglu '18 - Language & Culture

Marisa Houlahan '17 - Sublime to Shipbreaking


❷ Consider feasibility

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. 

Have a motivating question

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.

In addition to any requirements or guidelines your course might have, your topic will also need to fall squarely within the scope of anthropology. 

📎 Example

For instance, 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, and 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 anthropological question 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.

💡Tip: Talk to specialists

Your instructor and/or teaching fellow should be your first stop when seeking help regarding your paper.

It may also be worth it to talk to someone who specializes in the topic you are researching. Check the department website for a list of faculty and graduate students and 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.

❸ Make sure the scope is right

What is doable in a 90-page senior thesis would be too much in a 7-page paper. 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 but you are only expected to write a 15-page paper, you may want to choose a specific court case to 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, your 15-page paper might end up rather superficial.

💡Tip: Outline and ask your TF 

If you are having trouble gauging whether your content is appropriate to the page length, you have a couple of options.

First, you can write an outline of the sorts of evidence or pieces of argument you're likely to have to present, as well as subtopics of things you may have to define and any arguments you know you want to make. An outline will help you judge the complexity of the paper, and should give you more of an idea of whether you need to cut or further refine your focus.

Second, ask your professor or TF. They have more experience in writing papers of different lengths and will be able to tell you if you're taking on too much or whether you need to add something to be able to carry the argument across a longer paper. 

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.