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Research guide for students taking anthropology courses.

Defining a Topic

What to Expect

Your thesis should be approximately 80-100 pages when completed. For most students, this is the longest paper they have yet written in their college careers. It is important to keep this task in perspective. Remember that you have already written many short essays and you bring this practical experience to your work here.

Topics for short papers are often assigned by the professor and are often very specific, such as comparing the arguments in two or more books. Though you may or may not like the assignment, in such cases the professor has saved you the work of defining your own topic.

Choosing a Topic for Your Thesis

The senior thesis allows you to choose and refine your own topic. A longer research project also gives you an opportunity to make and support an argument, and to place your argument in the context of broader historical and anthropological debates. Learning to define a manageable topic is one of the important tools you will need when approaching this project.

A topic is an area of inquiry plus a thesis about some material or proposition. You must define your inquiry so that it is broad enough to sustain a discussion of particular length yet limited enough that you will not run out of space in which to cover it. You must also develop a topic for which there are available sources, in other words, material which you can gain access to in the first months of the academic year. Ask yourself (or better, ask a reference librarian) if you will be able to get much of what you need at Reed or other Portland-area libraries, or via Interlibrary Loan.

To find a topic, you will need to think about your own interests and do some preliminary library research. The most important aspects of a topic is that there must be available material on the subject and it must be able to sustain both your interest and a 100-page discussion.

  • One tactic is to review your own papers from previous classes, especially those essays that you felt you could have done more on.
  • Recall anthropology books and approaches that particularly interested you, from your own reading or from previous courses.
  • Ask yourself not only what subjects interest you, but what anthropological questions you find compelling.
  • If you have reading or course notes, look through those to help jog your memory of discussions that interested you.
  • A historical or ethnographic documentary that intrigued you might also be a starting point for your research. 

Professor Leslie Butler (formerly of Reed, currently an Assistant Professor of History, James Madison College at Michigan State University) offers the following advice:

Once you have located a general area of interest, the next step is to read broadly in this general subject and begin to locate a topic within it. Remember that subjects and topics are not the same thing; subjects are broad fields of inquiry while topics are narrower, more focused approaches to that subject.


  • The French Revolution is a subject, the response of the French clergy to the Revolution is a topic.
  • American women and the industrial revolution is a subject, female unionization in the needle trades in 20th-century New York City is a topic.
  • The English Civil War is a subject, the role of pamphlets in disseminating anti-royalist ideas in the 17th century is a topic.

You should be engaged in this narrowing of subject to topic from the start of your library research and construction of your bibliography. Focusing in on a topic right away will help you in the more difficult process of formulating an argument.

Start Taking Notes

  • Jot down a paragraph which describes each topic and includes your preliminary thesis or argument.
  • Write down possible sources that you are aware of, key words or phrases that are associated with your topic(s), key authors or famous historical subjects. Begin your preliminary library research by using these cues.
  • These are the notes and ideas you should bring with you to the first Anthropology Research Workshop (scheduled before the thesis proposal is due).

The first place to look for material on your subject is the Reed Library, especially in the reference room or in the library catalog. It is essential to begin by identifying some of the primary and secondary sources on your general topic.

Note that your topic will evolve and change as you do more research. This is part of the process. Because of this evolution, it is a good idea to learn how to take notes and develop some organized way of keeping track of your changing ideas.

  • One technique is to buy a blank notebook, keep it with you, and use it to jot down your ideas, relevant sources, etc.
  • Another is to begin as soon as possible to database your notes in a user-friendly program such as Zotero

Composing a bibliography is a key step in identifying and assessing sources. Done well, a bibliography will help you identify, modify and refine your topic and argument and allow you to organize a large amount of information. Your note-taking should include complete bibliographic information in the standard styles required in anthropology.  Beginning this as soon as possible, when you first pick up a source to read it, will save you much time and anxiety later.

(This section was adapted from an essay by Jacqueline Dirks, Cornelia Marvin Pierce Professor of History and Humanities, Reed College)

Research Methods