Writing in the Disciplines: Anthropology
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Getting StartedWriter's Web
by Miles McKemy
(printable version here)

Anthropology is a unique field in that it attempts to examine culture in both scientific and humanistic terms. Scholars strive to establish legitimacy with precise empirical data that supports hypotheses or observations; yet, they endeavor to explore the simply human aspects of life that cannot be translated or interpreted with science. Thus, it can be especially challenging for student writers to analyze the quality of scholars' work in anthropology and develop writing that properly addresses the issues at hand while still managing to find a voice that communicates their own unique interpretation. Below are some tips on how to begin a paper in anthropology:

Choosing a topic

When starting an anthropological research paper, it is often helpful to consult academic journal databases, such as AnthroSource and JSTOR, or even book reviews of popular ethnographies to become aware of significant studies that have recently been conducted. One can often see links between theories, themes, and approaches used by various authors of these anthropological studies and find potential for an interesting new analysis of the chosen subject. Identifying conflict or tension between pieces read in the past can be a promising starting point for exploring a topic, as it can suggest a specific focus but allow for substantial expansion. Personal experience can also be a source of inspiration that points to a topic especially relevant to one's life.

Understanding key theoretical issues

Writers in anthropology often utilize popular theories such as structuralism, functionalism, post-modernism, etc. to understand the studies they have conducted and to translate their findings to the reading audience. Recognizing these theoretical approaches can be crucial for analyzing an anthropologist's work and the strengths and weaknesses associated with the ethnographer's method. While an anthropologist's chosen theoretical approach may discuss a cultural issue from one perspective, it may also neglect other components that would be helpful for understanding the issue more thoroughly.

Utilizing bibliographies

The bibliographies of anthropological articles and ethnographies can provide a lot of information regarding who has studied the issue before and what works have been cited most frequently, and it can suggest an analytical approach that would give a clearer, more thorough understanding of the subject. It is important to examine the anthropologists' work that is cited often in articles relating to the chosen topic in order to understand the history of the issue and the most popular approaches that have been used to study it. Furthermore, an extensive bibliography suggests an anthropological writer has considered many viewpoints on the issues and is likely to be more objective, or at least more well-informed.

Attempt to identify subtleties

The field of anthropology thrives on anthropologists' and critics' exploration of cultural subtleties or nuances that have not yet been identified or considered. Increasingly, ethnographers are becoming more invested in individual cultures and understanding these groups in their own specific, cultural contexts. After all, the goal of anthropology is to understand cultures and the individuals that comprise them in the most comprehensive way possible. Extraordinary anthropological analytic papers attempt to tackle a topic with the same enthusiasm and desire for uncovering something new.

Seek help from professors

Professors can share a wealth of knowledge in terms of their own experiences, awareness of important issues within anthropology, connections with notable scholars, and they are oftentimes willing to lend students resource materials or help students acquire them. Students simply need to be willing to ask.


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