Senior Thesis Research

What does an Anthropology senior thesis look like?

The Anthropology Department encourages innovative and multidisciplinary projects, although all anthropology senior theses must engage or otherwise incorporate anthropological sources and reflect anthropological studies in some way. The research and critical reading skills that students develop in writing the junior paper (JP) are just as crucial to writing the senior thesis. Senior theses take many different forms in anthropology; many styles of writing and interpretation are valid. However a student approaches it, the thesis should address a clear research question, explain the significance of the question, critically engage literature relevant to the question, and present an analysis of data that bear on the question. Senior theses are expected to be based on original research, and are therefore more complex than JPs in their treatment of research topics. Correspondingly, they are also usually longer.

What do Anthropology majors write about in their senior theses?

A student in the sociocultural anthropology track may choose any topic relevant to the discipline of anthropology. For a student in the law, politics, and economics track, the senior thesis should focus on an anthropological topic related to one or more areas of focus of law, politics, and/or economics. Since anthropologists consider the body the existential ground of culture, a student in the medical anthropology track can choose any anthropological topic for the senior thesis, provided the methodological and theoretical approach taken is approved by the student's senior thesis adviser. 

Senior theses in anthropology have focused on a wide variety of subjects and have been based on field, library, laboratory, and museum research. Some theses have also included creative components — for example, a theater production, photography exhibit, dance performance, or documentary film — but such projects must be accompanied by a substantial written essay. For an idea of the range of possible topics and examples of past Anthropology senior theses, including some that have been awarded senior thesis prizes, please click here. Students can also refer to the Mudd Library's online catalog of Princeton University senior theses to download an entire thesis online within the Princeton domain, or browse and leaf through the collection of bound copies of anthropology senior theses housed in the Anthropology Department office in 116 Aaron Burr Hall. 

Thesis Research

A senior thesis in anthropology may be based on field research, or grounded in deep reading and analysis of the extant anthropological literature on a specific topic. Doing thesis research during the summer between junior and senior years is very helpful but not required for anthropology majors. Individual situations vary.  For example, one student might plan the thesis during the spring of junior year and become fully engaged in thesis research during the summer; another might choose to spend the summer engaged in other endeavors, but make plans during the spring to conduct research at the end of the summer or upon return to campus in the fall. During the spring term of the junior year, JP advisers are available to help their students plan next steps. If a student plans to begin research after the summer, or has reason to continue research that was initiated during the summer, limited fieldwork may be conducted during the fall term, winter break, or intersession.

Once a student has ideas for a thesis topic, the best way to begin is to discuss those ideas with the JP adviser, although students are also welcome to consult other faculty members as appropriate to the specific project. A student interested in conducting research during the summer between junior and senior years should begin planning by the start of the spring semester, and should plan adequate time to complete the research (usually a minimum of four continuous weeks for field-based research, and possibly longer, depending on the project). Students are required to take ANT 301 prior to the proposed start date of senior thesis field research except in rare circumstances. A student must be recommended by his or her JP adviser and approved by the director of undergraduate studies for an exception to this requirement. In the event of a spring study abroad in junior year, the director of undergraduate studies may choose to approve a substitute course in place of ANT 301, if such a course is available. Fieldwork-based thesis research requires IRB approval. There are several types of applications; a faculty adviser or IRB staff should be consulted to determine what kind of IRB application to submit. Funding applications will require written support from a faculty member, normally the student’s JP adviser when a research proposal is prepared during junior year. 

The Student Activities Funding Engine (SAFE) is a student portal to all University funding opportunities, including support for senior thesis research offered by departments, programs, and centers on campus. One of the funding opportunities in SAFE is the Anthropology Department’s “field-based senior thesis research grant program,” from which awards are made to anthropology majors to conduct field research. The Anthropology Department’s grant program is intended primarily as support for thesis research conducted during the summer, but students may also apply in the spring for Department funding for thesis research planned to begin during the fall semester. For the Anthropology Department’s grant program, there is only one application cycle each year (in the spring), but there are also other opportunities University-wide during the fall term.

The timing of summer research planning is partly determined by the deadlines to apply for funding (applicable to both library and field-based research), as well as the review cycle at the IRB for research involving human subjects (applicable to fieldwork only). 

Structure and Format

Anthropology theses are usually multi-part or multi-chapter projects. While length varies greatly, a typical thesis might be between 18,000 to 25,000 words (excluding notes, references, illustrations, tables, and appendices) and contain three or four main sections.

Students should consult anthropology journals (like American Anthropologist) for guidance on the proper style of footnotes, citations, and bibliographies. Note that the citation of sources is not usually placed in footnotes in anthropological journal articles, but rather placed parenthetically in the text itself; footnotes are reserved for clarifications and other asides. For more detailed guidelines, refer to the American Anthropological Association (AAA) Style Guide.

Senior Seminar and Advising

In the first weeks of the fall semester, Anthropology seniors are each assigned a thesis adviser with whom they ought to consult regularly all year. Additionally, students are welcome to consult any faculty member, within or outside the Anthropology Department, in developing their research. However, barring exceptional circumstances, an anthropology major’s thesis adviser will be a member of the Anthropology Department faculty. 

Throughout the fall term, the senior seminar gives students a chance to develop thesis ideas and to begin writing their theses with structured group support in addition to individual faculty guidance. The senior seminar builds on the work that students have undertaken on anthropological inquiry, theory, and research methods in their anthropology classes and junior independent work. The senior seminar is a required, ungraded course. It comprises a series of discussions and writing assignments, engaging students’ own research experiences and helping them with many aspects of thesis writing: choosing a topic, formulating a research question, writing an ethnographic scene, choosing and developing evidence or research materials, situating writing in anthropological literature, and developing a voice, “using” theory, drafting and revising. The format of the seminar is collaborative; students work closely with the other members of their group, helping one another to refine and revise their ideas and their writing as they move through the fall semester. At the end of the senior seminar and before the end of the fall term, students have written their senior thesis proposal.

For a detailed timeline for the senior thesis, students can refer to the "Senior Calendar" that is posted at the beginning of each academic year in the Canvas for Anthropology Concentrators. Departmental deadlines for the senior thesis are clearly shown on this calendar. Students are expected to use the calendar to help pace their own independent work. A student who is in danger of missing a deadline must read and understand the department’s policy on extensions and late work.

Senior thesis writers should also refer often to the Guide to Independent Work in Anthropology, a handbook that is updated as needed at the beginning of each new academic year. The anthropology Libguide and anthropology databases are also invaluable resources.

Return to Student Independent Work main page.