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.

An anthropology thesis can investigate virtually anything.  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.

Whatever the source of inspiration might be, theses in anthropology 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: “My thesis will merge collaborative research with a community partner and anthropological theory. The end result will be a document that my community partner can use for its own needs.”

We expect the majority of thesis projects to carry on the traditional anthropological task, investigating an ethnographic or archaeological case and applying a theoretical perspective to it. Projects of this kind should contain a literature review. This chapter will situate the chosen subject within an established body of anthropological literature, often by demonstrating how perspectives on that topic have changed within the discipline over time. They will also seek to put authors into conversation with one another in such a way as to highlight the merits of respective positions and the sources of disagreement. Because this is a conversation orchestrated by you, the thesis writer, the literature review is also an opportunity for you to demonstrate your familiarity with this literature and show how you position your own work within this subject area. The department will want you to demonstrate how you see yourself contributing to this larger body of scholarship.

Students who choose this approach will be expected to include chapters on methodology and data collected as well. 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 Department is open to thesis proposals that have an applied orientation. 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. Because this sort of project would need to be attentive to the theoretical and ethical issues involved in accommodating new Americans, the anthropology department will in most cases expect the thesis to include a literature review and theoretical frame which may or may not be a component of the document circulated to the community partner (depending on the project, the nature of the partnership, and the assessment of the student and advisor). 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.

In keeping with the discipline of anthropology’s deep interest in experience and subjectivity (not to mention evocative description), the Department is also willing to consider thesis projects that utilize creative forms of expression. Students may build their theses around creative writing, audio and video recordings, and even performance art, provided that they supplement these creative works with a written explanation (supported by a theoretical approach and a review of the relevant literatures) of their chosen project and its significance. This explanation is necessary because it will help the student to communicate their project to their advisors/honors thesis committee members and, in doing so, to make it available for assessment.

Ultimately, 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 for their particular thesis and what will not.

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, or a collection of essays, rather than book monograph. Further information is available on such webpages as “Writing at Bates” (http://www.bates.edu/writing.xml).

For their endnotes and bibliographic references, students are expected to follow the American Anthropological Association’s preferred style guide, the Chicago Manual of Style. A summary of this style, and a link to the Chicago Manual of Style itself, can be found here: http://www.americananthro.org/StayInformed/Content.aspx?ItemNumber=2044

Writing a Thesis in Archaeology

Archaeology theses may differ from those on other anthropological topics as they tend to be interdisciplinary, potentially combining one or more of the natural sciences and/or combine multiple combinations of anthropology (e.g. linguistic, physical, cultural…). Archaeology theses will rely, to some degree, on material culture and data, often requiring a combination of quantitative and qualitative analysis.

If you are interested in writing an archaeology thesis based upon archaeological research, be sure to contact Professor Barnett early so that you can develop a project design and identify outside resources that may be required, depending on your interests.

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 from the faculty of the department on the basis of 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.

For those students who pursue honors, the process continues in the fall of the senior year, with the submission of a proposal (due on October 1) to the anthropology faculty, and it concludes with initial submission in March followed by a formal thesis defense in April and final formal submission to Bates’ segment of the digital commons in May. In the thesis defense, students accept questions about their thesis from a panel of Bates faculty and an outside expert on the chosen subject. Though your advisor makes the final decision about which outside expert to contact, and who among the Bates faculty will sit on your panel, advisors in the Department take student preference very seriously. Each panel contains one faculty member in the Department of Anthropology, one faculty member from another Department or Program, and one outside examiner. Students are encouraged to think carefully about which faculty members they might want to have on their committee. They are encouraged to think relatively quickly as well, because Bates faculty members are extremely busy and are unlikely to serve on more than a few thesis committees in a given year. Getting them to agree to read and respond to your thesis is therefore a project best pursued sooner rather than later. The same is true for identifying potential external readers as well, because they will not be familiar with the honors thesis process at Bates and may not respond promptly to inquiries.

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.


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 Student Affairs office. The Harward Center is another source of funding for anthropology students. See Shelly Palmer in the Center for Global Education, Kerry O’Brien in the dean of faculty’s office and Marty Deschaines at the Harward Center for more information on these opportunities. Consult the Student Research website at http://www.bates.edu/academics/student-research/. 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 115 maintains a loaner pool of equipment for the Bates community. Students may borrow digital still and video cameras, digital audio recorders, and transcribers.

Bates’ Writing and Speaking Center is an incredibly useful resource for support in matters concerning writing and editing. You can find more information about their services here: http://www.bates.edu/writing/the-writing-center/.

There are a number of guides (of various styles) available to assist you in the mechanical details of writing a long research paper. Some such guides, many of which have been used by faculty in your department to assist them in their own writing, include:

-Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

-Kate Turabian’s A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses, and Dissertations

-Eviatar Zerubavel’s The Clockwork Muse

– Mike Crang and Ian Cook Doing Ethnographies