Writing Assignments

Throughout your Harvard career as an Anthropology concentrator, you will be required to write a number of different kinds of papers. This section extracts from Lahiri, Mahmud and Herron (2007)'s Guide to provides an overview of the types of assignments you will most often receive and offers strategies for approaching each.

The written assignments for an Anthropology course often include several or all of the following: short weekly response papers of a page or two, one or more lengthier essays whose topics may be assigned or left to your choosing, and an individually-designed research paper due at the end of the term. In this section of the interface, we will cover some key issues to keep in mind as you approach these assignments. These include arriving at a motivation for writing, defining and delimiting the subject and the argument of your essay, reading between the lines of assigned topics, conducting research, and consulting with advisors

❶ Response Papers: An Informal Formality

Many professors use response papers as a way of insuring that students seriously engage with assigned materials. Often these assignments are graded relatively informally (e.g. using the "check" system) because most teachers genuinely want students to take risks with new ideas. However, these assignments are not throwaways. Writing response papers gives you a chance to practice and improve your ability to summarize, analyze, and criticize—valuable skills when writing longer, higher-stakes essays.  

Balance Summary and Analysis

Response papers can be tricky since you have to effectively integrate both summary and analysis of a text or multiple texts. It is important that you provide a well-crafted summary that refers both to the overall arc of the reading as well as to some of its most crucial details. However, your summary should not exceed more than one third to one half of the paper.

The type of your analysis will depend on how many readings you are required to address. If you are dealing with a single work, you should provide an overall assessment of its contributions and shortcomings. Secondly, you should devote part of your response paper to some specific aspect of the book that you found interesting, troubling, or especially revelatory. This could be a corollary argument the author proposes, an ethnographic vignette, or a theme that relates this book to the discipline's history or to other themes from the course.

In many anthropology and archaeology courses, however, you will often be assigned various articles or book excerpts to read in the same week. In this case, your response paper will need to address simultaneously the texts of different authors. Once again, your instructor might set some guidelines for your course, but in general there are some options when responding to multiple texts at once:

  1. Focus on one main text, and refer to the others to enrich your analysis of the main text.
  2. Compare and contrast all texts. Thinking about why your instructor put these readings together in the syllabus, examine how each speaks to a central theme and/or to each other.
  3. Choose a narrow question that is relevant to the course or to that week, and use the readings to develop possible answers to it.

❷ The Précis: A Specific Type of Response Paper

Instead of a generic response paper, some courses might ask you to write a “précis,” an interpretive summary, which requires you to integrate closely the summary and the analysis parts of your response paper. More than just offering a set of notes on the contents of a text, a précis connects those contents to the text’s argumentative structure and presentational strategy

Identifying the Main Issue: The first component of your précis should be a statement of the main issues or problems addressed by the text. Is the book primarily concerned with a specific group of people and their interlocked set of beliefs? With a specific inference from the archaeological record of a site? It is your job to discern which concerns are pre-eminent and which are of lesser importance to the author —  by paying attention to the author’s explicit cues, and in part by comparing them to the claims and evidence s/he presents.

Tracing a Text's Development: Your précis should discuss the text’s logic or pattern of development. It may be helpful to study carefully the table of contents, as you try to understand the narrative structure of the text. Here, for illustrative purposes, are two templates for sentences that discuss logical patterns:

1. “By examining the sources of _________, the author shows the consequences of ____________.” 

2. "In order to ____________, the text shows the interrelationship between ________ and ____________ .”

In this part of the précis, you should illustrate the author’s logical moves by summarizing key information from the text (supplying page references wherever possible). As you look over the text for evidence, you will find it useful to ask yourself what categories of information are being supplied by the narrative and expository sections of the text. Possible categories of information might include the following: characteristics of events, groups, or subgroups; stages in an event or process; limitations, restrictions, or other constraints upon the research process.

Shaping Critical Analysis: By following these steps, you will undoubtedly sharpen your skills at culling important details and summarizing the most crucial aspects of the text. You will also have found a direction for the third component of your précis: critical analysis and interpretation. Here, you will draw out the implications of the text and present your own assertions or questions about it. In setting up the narrative or argument in a specific way, what has the author overlooked, asserted, or brushed aside? What seems novel or conventional about the inferences or arguments of the text?

❸ The Nebulous and the Open-Ended:
Pitfalls of the “Short Long” Essay

Imagine that you are asked to write a paper of 5-10 pages on some theme (say, the relationship between gender and globalization) without being provided with a specific question to answer or otherwise given much guidance about how to approach the assignment. Alternatively, imagine an assignment that provides a question, but one that is overly broad and does little more than suggest a topic or theme.

Faced with such an assignment, the first thing you should do is verify that the assignment is indeed as open-ended as it appears to be. Sometimes instructors provide a nebulous paper prompt but in fact have a specific question or set of questions in mind that they would like students to address in the essay. It’s best to ask about this.

Matt Liebman discusses some tips
for the "Short-Long" Essay

If the assignment is truly open-ended, the crucial thing to keep in mind is that a topic is not yet a question or problem that you can usefully address in an essay. You cannot write a paper about gender and globalization, which is a huge and ill-defined area of inquiry; rather you need to identify some specific question or problem under the broad heading of gender and globalization that can be tackled in your paper. How then do you arrive at a problematic or question to address in the paper?

A good place to start is often your instructor’s presentation of the material you are writing about, or issues that have come up during class discussion. Often class discussions will gravitate toward ‘live’ or contested issues, research problems, or scholarly debates that might form the basis of a specific paper problematic. The readings assigned for the relevant part of the course might also suggest debates, contradictions, puzzles or tensions that could form the basis of a question.

Even when the paper assignment is quite vague, your paper still needs to take a specific argumentative form. There are several broad argument types in anthropology that you might consider as you try to figure out an approach to a thematic or nebulous paper assignment, including:

  •  Intervening in a scholarly debate. Here you stake out an original position in a scholarly debate by weighing the plausibility of various other positions and making the case for one point of view or, even better, formulating your own hybrid or novel position.
  •  Testing a theory with evidence. You can take a theoretical framework and test it by putting it to work on ethnographic or some other sort of cultural evidence. The basic question for this sort of essay is: Does the theory produce the insights that it is supposed to produce? If not, how would the theory need to be revised in order to work better?
  •  A lens essay. The lens paper is a variation of the test-a-theory paper in which you take a theoretical or interpretive framework (Goffman’s notion of a ‘frame,’ say) and apply it to new material. The lens paper differs from a test-a-theory paper in that the emphasis is less on evaluating the theory (whether ‘frame’ is a useful analytical concept) than on interpreting the evidence in a new way.
  •  Comparing theories, methodologies, texts, or approaches. In this sort of essay you attempt to reveal non-obvious relationships between theories, texts, etc. by comparing them along some relevant dimension. You might find, for instance, that although two texts advance contradictory claims, they make similar underlying assumptions..
  •  Questioning the assumptions of an argument or text. Any argument assumes some things to be true and not in need of defense or analysis. You can identify the assumptions embraced by a particular argument and scrutinize them. In doing so you can uncover non-obvious implications of an argument or text.
  •  Recontextualizing a theory or claim. Anthropological writing often draws on arguments made in one particular social context and extends them to new cultural material. 

The crucial thing to keep in mind is that the nebulous paper assignment should not be treated as license to write a nebulous paper. Your paper still needs to articulate a specific question or problematic and a specific, arguable thesis that addresses the question. 

❹Taming the Term Paper

Term papers requiring original or independent research may be (at the discretion of the professor) anywhere from 10 to a daunting 25 pages in length. In preparing to write such a paper, you will confront several challenges: choosing a topic that satisfies the aims of the course while reflecting your own interests; delimiting the subject matter in order to arrive at a manageable focus and motivation, building your knowledge of the topic through research and analysis, and getting approval for your topic and preliminary feedback on your ideas from advisors.

Researching the Paper

Once you have found a topic, specified a relevant ‘motivating question’, and checked to make sure that it is feasible in the allotted number of pages, you are ready to start your paper. In most cases, unless the instructor has included a practicum component in the course, you will not be conducting fieldwork for your written assignments. However, many of the texts you will be assigned to read are based on field research, so you should be prepared to evaluate the research methods, data, evidence, and arguments of each. Here are some additional strategies to consider: 

1. Compile an Annotated Bibliography. In an annotated bibliography, every entry is followed by a brief (2-3 sentence) description of the work and its relationship to your research topic. Organize the entries by sub-topics (e.g., “works about Brazil;” “works about Bolivia”), and then alphabetically by author within each section. This will help you to organize your material and to outline your paper.

2.  Draft a Paper Proposal. Some professors might ask you to submit a paper proposal to get you started on your research and writing with plenty of time to spare for possible changes, and to give you early feedback. Generally, a paper proposal should not be more than 2-3 double-spaced pages, and should include the following: a paper title; a discussion of your topic, motivating questions, and possible conclusions; and a list of works you have consulted or are planning to consult. A paper abstract can serve a similar purpose to a proposal in a shorter form (typically a paragraph or 200-300 words).

3. Seek Early Feedback. Take advantage of any opportunity to receive early feedback. If for some reason your topic does not work out as you hoped, you want to make sure you have plenty of time to revise it before the deadline. In some courses instructors will offer to read early drafts or paper proposals (if you are unsure, just ask!). Some seminars devote time to in-class paper workshops. Depending on specific course policies, you may be allowed to exchange help and ideas with your classmates. Putting in the extra work ahead of time to troubleshoot an outline or an early draft will help to ward off and avoid any unpleasant surprises after the deadline.

Drafting and Revising

After you have finalized your topic and conducted the necessary research, you are ready to begin writing. Obviously, many of the characteristics of a “good” paper are not specific to anthropology. Having a coherent argument, supporting your claims with adequate evidence, and writing correctly and effectively are considered strengths in most disciplines. For an example of organization and writing styles, check out Professor George Mieu's writing strategies. If you need general help with your writing, The Harvard Writing Program offers guidance and materials to help overcome common obstacles with organization, argumentation, or grammar.


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.