Senior Thesis Research

What does an Anthropology senior thesis look like?

Independent work in the senior year consists of a thesis based on ethnographic research on a timely issue or deep analysis of the extant anthropological literature on a topic of interest. A thesis that has a central artistic component must be accompanied by a substantial written essay. The Anthropology Department encourages methodologically and theoretically innovative senior thesis projects that expand our understanding of diverse lifeworlds and reorient ethical and political imagination. 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, Anthropology senior theses (about 20,000 words) are longer than JPs (about 8,000 words)..

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, see Anthropology Senior Theses and prizes awarded. 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 a collection of bound copies of (2019 and earlier) 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.

A junior major with ideas for a thesis topic begins by discussing 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 in junior year, 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). Fieldwork-based thesis research requires IRB approval. Students learn about the IRB in the required core course ANT 301, The Ethnographer's Craft,. Students must 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 the ANT 301 requirement. In the event of a spring study abroad in junior year, the director of undergraduate studies may choose to approve an ANT 301 substitute, if such a course is available.) When a student applies for senior thesis research funding in junior year, it is normally the JP adviser who helps the student and then evaluates the research proposal. The JP adviser is also normally the faculty member acting as the "PI" (principal investigator) on the student's IRB application seeking approval to conduct summer fieldwork.

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, in addition to the University-wide Office of Undergraduate Research. One of the funding opportunities in SAFE is the Anthropology Department’s “field-based senior thesis research grant program." Funding from ANT is intended primarily as support for thesis research conducted during the summer before senior year, but ANT juniors may also apply in the spring for Department funding for thesis research planned in advance for senior year. For the Anthropology Department’s grant program, there is only one application cycle each year (in the spring); however, there are other University-wide funding opportunities that accept applications in the fall term of senior year.

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, ranging from 20,000 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

Anthropology seniors are each assigned a thesis adviser early in the fall term 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. 

The senior seminar is a required, ungraded course that meets periodically during the fall term.  It is designed to help students "workshop" their senior theses. 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. 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.