Writing process

By their nature, theses are exercises in creating new knowledge.

In a natural science, a thesis project might entail a laboratory experiment; in philosophy, it might require a close analysis of a particular philosophical position. Most theses for this department depend upon fieldwork, in combination with library research.

Theses do more than gather information on a particular topic. Theses are not reports, nor are they entirely descriptive. They can be  genuine research only to the extent that they look at a topic generated out of a particular location from a theoretical perspective. Without a perspective on the topic, students have no criterion by which to include or exclude material, except, perhaps, the limits of their own energy, the extent of our library resources, and the strictures of time. With a perspective, though, carrying out fieldwork or doing library research acquires a point, a premise, a reason: “I want to show that Sahlins’ understanding of ‘stereotypic reproduction’ is wrong in the case of the colonial encounter between Japan and Korea.” Or: “In this thesis I want to take a cognitive anthropological approach and investigate The Bates Student.” Or: “Anthropological thought has been dominated in recent years by two approaches to the peasantry and agricultural development, one associated with Geertz, the other, with Bloch. This thesis is an attempt to evaluate the strengths and shortcomings of both approaches.”

A good thesis can begin with a student’s interest in either a topic or a theory.  Sometimes it begins in a class. Sometimes it begins with a student rummaging through anthropology journals. Sometimes it grows out of the ideas or experiences first encountered on a junior year abroad program or during a summer job or internship. Topics are motivated sometimes by moral interest, sometimes by more obviously academic concerns.

As of academic year 2011-12, the Department is open to thesis proposals that have an applied orientation.  We expect the majority of thesis projects to carry on the traditional anthropological task, investigating an ethnographic or archeological case and applying a theoretical perspective to it.  But we can also imagine some majors being better served by pursuing a project with an applied focus, set in the context of policy issues that bear on that focus.

One example can illustrate what we mean by an applied thesis project.  For the past few years Elizabeth Eames and some of our majors have worked with the Androscoggin Bank on providing banking facilities for local Muslims consistent with Sharia (Islamic) law.  A thesis project with an applied focus might take this form.  There have been other Western and Asian communities and banks that have attempted to provide Muslims with borrowing facilities that do not violate religious scruples.  The thesis might begin with a review of these projects and an evaluation of their successes and failures.  The balance of the thesis might develop a proposal for how the Androscoggin Bank ought to proceed in light of other communities’ experiences.  A further task might entail consideration of the theoretical and ethical issues involved in accommodating new Americans.  Comparable projects could follow the same logic in looking at community health issues, local education, Habitat for Humanity projects, migration trends in Lewiston and Auburn, or Catholic Charities

An anthropology thesis can investigate virtually anything.  Good theses, however, have a common structure.  They begin with a review of the literature on your chosen subject, usually retracing the evolution of recent arguments relative to the issue of theoretical importance.  Your literature review should cover past and current work relevant to your subject, theoretical paradigm, or philosophical debate, and must demonstrate your familiarity with this literature.  As you present the literature review, situate your own work within this subject area.  How does your work contribute to this larger body of scholarship?

In the following chapters, you should present your methodology and data collected.  Your data may include ethnographic material you collected, archival material, secondary sources you have analyzed, or other material you have gathered.  This material should be presented in a way that reflects its relationship to your subject and larger study.   Finally, you must analyze your data and draw meaning from it through applying an anthropological perspective.  It is through this analysis that your research question(s) may be answered, and that your work may be transformed into a significant synthesis of research and theory.

The number of chapters in a thesis is arbitrary, but most have three to six chapters and the entire thesis may run approximately sixty (60) pages.  Length for its own sake does not make a thesis; the productive tension between theory and case material does. Think journal article rather than book monograph, and persuasive argument rather than descriptive narrative.

This handout can only provide a summary view of conceptualizing and organizing a thesis – each thesis is a project that takes its particular shape from the interaction of a minimum of two human beings with the theoretical and descriptive material. That is, students need to regularly see their advisor, to brainstorm, get feedback, and come to a mutual understanding of what will work and what will not. Guidance on the mechanical details necessary for writing a long research paper can be found in Kate Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations.

Further information is available on such webpages as “Writing at Bates” Students shall follow the American Anthropologist’s style of “embedded citations” and endnotes, located at especially pp. 4, 7-9).

Writing a Thesis in Archaeology

Archaeology theses may differ somewhat from those on other anthropological topics because they tend to be interdisciplinary, often relating to one or more of the natural sciences, and because archaeological data tend to be concrete, often requiring quantitative descriptive analysis. The facilities, collections, and research activities of the Maine State Museum provide many interesting opportunities for such thesis projects. However, an added bit of planning and coordination may be required to assure their success.

If you are interested in writing an archaeology thesis based upon original archaeological research, be sure to contact Professor Bourque early so that you can develop a workable project design. You may have to arrange for substantial advice from a faculty member in another department, schedule travel to visit Museum collections, or conduct fieldwork or other activities which complicate matters slightly.

Writing an Honors Thesis

Honors theses are year-long projects that draw students deeply into their chosen topic.  They involve close cooperation with a supportive advisor who helps the student frame the thesis and develop methodological and theoretical tools to address the question.  In addition, they often lead to satisfying contacts with experts outside the Bates community.  Honors projects usually have their inception prior to the senior year, often with junior-year study abroad or field work during the pre-senior summer.  They formally begin in May of the junior year, with an invitation, and continue in September of the senior year with the submission of a proposal to the anthropology faculty and terminate the following May with a thesis defense before a panel of Bates faculty and an outside expert in the chosen subject.  The prospect of writing an honors thesis may at first seem daunting but your advisor will understand this and respond with enthusiastic support.  In the end, the intellectual challenges and satisfactions of completion are profound and often have lasting positive impacts upon students’ subsequent lives.  While some honors theses lead to publishable papers and many form a path to graduate education, all impart a sense of maturity and confidence in having actually made a significant contribution to knowledge.

Invitations to do an honors thesis are issued in the spring of the junior year based upon prior academic achievement.  Those wishing to petition the department for the right to pursue an honors thesis should submit their written application in September of their senior year. Normally, Bates departments admit only 10% of their students to the honors program, and the petition is a serious matter.


Seniors undertaking anthropological research projects may apply to several internal Bates programs for funds to support travel expenses, software, phone interviews, transcription, and interlibrary loan costs.  Some funding programs are administered by the Dean of the Faculty’s Office, others by the Dean of Students’ Office. The Harward Center is another source of funding for anthropology students. See Doris Vincent in the Off-Campus Study Office, Kerry O’Brien in Jill Reich’s office and Marty Deschaines at the Harward Center for more information on these opportunities. Consult the Student Research and Service-Learning Support website at  The department itself has a small budget for student research funding, including, but not limited to, the Hamill Family Fund for Fieldwork in Anthropology.

The Classroom and Technology Event Support Center in Pettigrew Hall 118 maintains a loaner pool of equipment for the Bates community. Students may borrow digital still and video cameras, digital audio recorders, and transcribers. See for additional information.

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