Learning Goals

Writing in the Anthropology Major

Anthropology distinguishes itself from related fields in Social Sciences and Humanities by emphasizing sustained and intimate engagement with people’s lived experiences. Our curriculum prepares students to understand and communicate the linkages between culture and power in changing, local, national, and global circumstances as they affect people’s daily lives. Our courses explore anthropology through engagement in and beyond the classroom with pressing issues surrounding the new economy, gender, human rights, legal systems, transnational migration, politics, race, religion, and social justice.  Writing is critical to these explorations and is integrated throughout our curriculum to prepare students to reflect upon and engage with these pressing social concerns. 

Ethnographic writing involves placing oneself in the research context to gain first-hand sense of how local knowledge is put to work in grappling with practical and philosophical problems.  Anthropology students learn the skills of qualitative research by reading ethnographies and applying methods like participant observation; writing field notes; developing social maps of particular communities; media analysis; written observations; reflective writing about advocacy projects in which students are engaged; and, analysis of interview and observational data.

Our majors are required to design and carry out their own research projects in the fieldwork methods core class. This course gives the students a chance to get a first hand experience of crafting a research proposal, to design and apply methods and to gather and interpret their findings. In addition to learning the tools of ethnographic writing, students also typically write reading reflections, précis of significant readings, as well as full research papers that draw on their ethnographic field research. Throughout this process, faculty work with students to revise and develop their analysis across courses and years of study. Our senior core courses offer students an in-depth understanding of the core texts and theoretical debates about the ethics, politics, representation, and meaning of the discipline. The writing goals in these courses are to facilitate critical reflection and assessment of classical and contemporary works of anthropologists.

Writing in the anthropology major is a central tool for communicating and producing knowledge about “local” realities and everyday experiences, and how they are shaped by the larger forces (economic, cultural, political) that shape – and are shaped by – all human experience.  In our program, students also learn to be attuned to their own roles as researcher and writer, insiders and outsiders, and observers of socio-cultural phenomena drawing on their own experiences and positions in society.  

Core Courses

A) Beginning level - Introduction to Cultural Anthropology


  • Show familiarity with the anthropological concept of culture, now and in the past; understand how culture is produced, challenged, and changed and how it relates to power; identify the cultural basis of historical and contemporary political, social, and economic phenomena; rethink “natural” behaviors and received ideas about class, education, entertainment, the market, medicine, politics, and the law.
  • Understand different anthropological schools of thought about cultural systems, moving from Boasian anthropology through structural-functionalism to various contemporary approaches to anthropology.
  • Learn themes in classic anthropological texts such as kinship, marriage, gender, religion, art, political and legal anthropology, medical anthropology and applied anthropology. Recognize emerging fields and issues including identity politics, race, ethnicity, work, the city, globalization, science and technology, policy, food, and gender and sexuality.
  • Understand the principal methodologies of qualitative fieldwork research (including but not confined to ethnographic participant observation), and the genre of ethnographic writing.
  • Appreciate the relevance of anthropology to the study of contemporary life in a globalized world.


  • Demonstrate basic understanding of data collection, participant observation, ethnographic interviewing, interpretive analysis, and the ethical responsibilities of research with human subjects; complete two mini-fieldwork projects outside of class involving the submission of field notes and the completion of writing assignments.
  • Identify and explain several major debates in contemporary anthropology.
  • Explain how anthropological tools and ethnographic methods can be used in a range of settings (e.g. community centers, courts, government agencies, human rights commissions, government agencies, schools, workplaces).
  • Identify and synthesize the arguments in assigned texts.
  • Master the basics of writing well-organized analytic papers.

Course Assessment Tools

  • mini-fieldwork assignments-20%
  • two five-page essays-20%
  • one in-class mid-term essay examination and one take-home examination-40%
  • quality and frequency of class attendance and participation-20%

A = students demonstrate mastery of course material in class and writing, make the material their own through a critical engagement with the content, and go well beyond class lectures to draw on other readings and new analyses.
B= students who show understanding of the material through accurate summaries of class readings and the correct application of anthropological theories to fieldwork findings.
C=students who reveal some weaknesses in their grasp of basic concepts, in synthesizing material, following directions, and in the quality of their written work.
D=students who have significant difficulty in understanding basic concepts, conducting fieldwork research, and producing written work.
F=students who produce no work, fail to attend class regularly or demonstrate no understanding of course concepts.

B) 300-level - Doing Anthropological Fieldwork

Through the design and completion of an intensive semester-long research project, students explore the theory and practice of anthropological fieldwork. While the research is conducted outside of class, in-class discussion centers on the key analytical themes in the scholarship on ethnographic methodology. Students compare these themes with the issues that emerge in their research. They read a growing body of theoretical work on ethnographic research methods and the contentious debates that surround a rethinking of what constitutes the field. To demonstrate the rich variety of sources for data in fieldwork, students read ethnographies in rural and urban settings from around the world; a testimonial about political violence in El Salvador; an oral history of daily life under Jim Crow in the American south; and theatre pieces written by performers who use interviews as the basis for their art. They consider the contribution of anthropology to larger public discussions on culture and politics and the uses of field research and ethnographic methods by non-anthropologists. Finally, students study the ways that communities respond to what the anthropologist has written about them.

Students end by attempting to write their own mini-ethnography. Ethnography is a genre of writing that is descriptive and problem-oriented, focusing on a particular cultural group, region or issue. It is a genre that has expanded beyond anthropology to other social sciences and humanities disciplines, as well. But ethnography is also a research methodology revolving around participant observation, an approach to the collection of empirical materials that is not just qualitative in nature, but involves a more personal interaction with the people being studied. Finally, ethnography is more than the collection and writing-up of data, but a conceptual standpoint from which ethnographers make sense of the world.


  • Appreciate the changing definitions of the field, the subject community, and the ethnographic enterprise.
  • Understand the ethical responsibilities of anthropologists, the politics of writing and audience, and the dynamic nature of ethnographic encounters.
  • Examine the dilemmas in identifying and managing power imbalances between the anthropological researcher and her interlocutors based on class, ethnic, gender or religious background.
  • Study research design that incorporates both the local and the global, balances an emphasis on the individual and the group, and accounts for change over time.
  • Learn the skills required to build trust with interlocutors; collect, record, and organize data; work collaboratively in a team; analyze research findings, and produce a written ethnography.


  • Discuss debates within anthropology on ethnographic methods and writing.
  • Identify the unique contributions anthropologists make to an understanding of social life as a result of their research methodologies.
  • Design and conduct a viable research project.
  • Produce a substantive written ethnography in which the data illuminates key theoretical concepts.
  • Appreciate the challenges posed by personalized modes of inquiry and the way specific contexts of power mediate and shape the research project.

Course Assessment Tools

  • a short, un-graded research proposal that can be revised based on past models, student feedback, and professor input.
  • a five-page paper that sets forth the theoretical framework for the project, 20% of the final grade.
  • a compilation of field notes assembled over the course of the semester, 10%.
  • the 20-25 page fieldwork ethnography, 70%.

A= outstanding choice of field site and research problem that make clear and compelling linkages to key theoretical concepts, excellent research design, comprehensive description of the history and context, substantial time (6-8 hours weekly) devoted to the research; outstanding analysis.

B=good choice of field site, some connection to course themes and analysis using anthropological theory, solid research design, required time spent on the project (4-6 hours weekly).

C=adequate choice of field site, mainly descriptive with no demonstrated link to class readings or key anthropological theories, minimum analysis.

D=students who have significant difficulty in understanding basic concepts, conducting fieldwork research, and producing written work.

F=students who produce no work, fail to attend class regularly or demonstrate no understanding of course concepts

C) 300-level - The Ethnographic Imagination

This core seminar is meant as an intermediate moment when students can take stock of their course work. Their studies began with an introduction to the discipline and then, ideally, continued with the second in a sequence of four core courses, Doing Anthropological Fieldwork. The Ethnographic Imagination is an overview of the ways in which anthropologists have studied and written about cultural systems in a number of world regions. Using case studies that engage the ethnographic imagination, this course explores the nature of anthropological research, centering on various schools of thought and approaches to anthropology, and ethnographic thinking including functionalism, contemporary ethnography, experimental writing, collaborative ethnography, and the writing of ethnographic history through the exploration of a range of issues including race, political organization, gender roles, identity politics, the city, nationalism, conflict and public policy.

The purpose of this course is to introduce students to the particular problems involved in thinking anthropologically, exploring the different ways in which ethnography has been written over time, reflecting on the relationship between ethnography as a genre and ethnography as a method, discovering the ways that the ethnographic imagination informs this connection, as well as informing research done through other methods. This is achieved by reading book-length monographs produced by anthropologists who use a range of theoretical perspectives, consider a number of issues, and articulate participant observation with varied methodological approaches.


  • Develop a deeper appreciation of the scope of the ethnographic enterprise, as opposed to focusing on specific topical or area issues.
  • Answer the central question, “What is ethnography?” by identifying the method and conceptual framework and by considering the positioning of the ethnographer in her or his society.
  • Study and evaluate different approaches to the problems concerning ethnography including:
    • Modernist ethnography: Ethnography emerged as a literary genre before ethnographic writing underwent a thorough critique in the 1980s. This approach tended to look at bounded cultural communities in an ahistorical framework. A number of theoretical approaches were central to modernist ethnography, including functionalism, structuralism, cultural ecology, and culture and personality.
    • Ethnography and personal testimony: This literature records the voice and experiences of individuals and has become part of the ethnographic canon. Exploring the uses of testimony will prepare student to discuss issues of voice and power.
    • The ethnography of gender: Inclusion of readings in this area is important because feminism is an interdisciplinary body of theory that uses diverse methodologies. Feminist ethnography frequently has different agendas than other ethnographies.
    • Ethnographic history: Most examples of historical anthropology neither follow the generic rules of exposition nor do they involve participant observation. Nevertheless, the ethnographic imagination is central to these texts.
    • Globalization: By studying globalization, students test the limits of the ethnographic methods and discover complementary approaches.
    • Collaboration and social engagement: Collaborative research methods began with the birth of the discipline. By exploring collaboration students will learn to problematize the relationship between theory and method, because collaboration involves the recognition of concepts and data-gathering originating from beyond the discipline and even beyond academia. Appreciating ethnography as a form of social engagement with the broader society allows students to expand their understanding of the possibilities of ethnography.
    • Experimental writing: Over the past thirty years, ethnographers have experimented with ethnography as a genre, paying attention to other forms of writing and attempting to engage readers more actively so that the book replicates the lived quality of the field experience. This approach fosters a better understanding of the issues inherent in ethnography as a genre.
    • Other anthropologies: appreciate the diversity of ways that anthropologists engage the ethnographic imagination by becoming acquainted with anthropological works written outside of North America and the United Kingdom.


  • Identify ethnographic texts and describe, compare, contrast, and evaluate the specific ways in which they engage the ethnographic imagination.
  • Show an awareness of the ways in which an understanding of what ethnography has changed over time.
  • Demonstrate an understanding of the importance of the positioning of the researcher in the construction of ethnographic texts.
  • Begin to understand how ethnographic writing and ethnographic research methods are related to one another.
  • Conduct library research to explore the literature belonging to a distinct anthropological tradition.

Course Assessment Tools

  • Class participation, including participation and response papers outlining the argument of each monograph, 25% of the final grade.
  • Class sessions involve close examinations of texts, informed by mini-lectures and pre-circulated discussion questions.
  • Two reflection essays, each 25%, total of 50%
  • In these essays they synthesize what they have learned. They are encouraged to meet in groups to discuss the questions-thus extending the class session into non-class hours-although they write the essays on their own. These writing assignments are not simply to evaluate students’ writing skills and their comprehension of the subject matter, They are also intended to help them perfect these skills and their knowledge base.
  • Bibliographic essay, 25%
  • Students are asked to prepare a bibliographic essay on an anthropological tradition other than those of the U.S. and U.K.

A=Students who go beyond the class discussion, bringing to bear their own evaluative capacities and their previous coursework and readings in well-written, clearly organized, and persuasively argued essays and response papers.

B=Students who are able to synthesize accurately the issues discussed in class and the readings and produce minimally acceptable pieces of writing.

C=Students who demonstrate difficulty in digesting the course subject matter or who cannot accurately articulate the concepts in their writing.

D=students who have significant difficulty in understanding basic concepts, conducting research, and producing written work.

F=students who produce no work, fail to attend class regularly or demonstrate no understanding of course concepts.

D) 400-level - Anthropological Theory

Anthropological Theory is the capstone core course for all Anthropology majors. It is meant to be a space where students can bring to bear the wealth of ethnographic knowledge they have acquired in the task of gaining an appreciation of how theory is constructed in the discipline. Given that our other core courses and many electives pay close attention to methodology and theory in the service of producing and evaluating ethnography, the theory seminar affords students the opportunity to draw together all of these threads in the opposite direction: in a course that focuses on the theoretical dimension of anthropological research and that privileges the overarching conceptual landscape of the discipline.

Although this is a theory course, most theoretical writings in anthropology are also ethnographic by nature. The seminar is meant to build upon two previous core courses, The Ethnographic Imagination and Doing Anthropological Fieldwork, which both introduce students to the linkages between theory and ethnography.


  • Explore in depth historical schools of anthropology, including culture history, functionalism and structuralism, as well as more current approaches to the discipline, including interpretive approaches, historical materialism, practice theory, and feminist theory.
  • Focus on the four major contemporary approaches to anthropology through anchor texts by Clifford Geertz (interpretive anthropology), Eric Wolf (historical materialism), Pierre Bourdieu (practice theory) and Sherry Ortner (feminism).
  • Foster an understanding of recent debates in the discipline including disagreement over historical approaches to anthropological research, the anthropology of globalization, and postmodernism or cultural critique, among others.

Two professors (Rappaport and Terrio) typically rotate in teaching the theory seminar and propose a different progression through the material as well as a different choice of some texts:


  • Organized into units anchored by the four major contemporary approaches to anthropology (see above).
  • Units move from the anchor text to its precursors and those scholars who have been influenced by it, rather than chronologically.
  • Examine the emergence of distinct anthropological traditions in countries and world regions, as well as among minority anthropologists in the U.S. in addition to those in which the discipline first developed (the U.K. France, and the U.S.)


  • Ask students to read primary or secondary texts by a wide range of theorists including Marx, Gramsci, Weber, Durkheim, and Foucault whose work contributes to anthropological analysis of modern and post-modern societies.
  • Foster an approach to anthropological theory that is historical and chronological by situating the major theorists and their work in the socio-political contexts that gave rise to the specific theories. To appreciate the role of theorists as public intellectuals actively engaged in public debates on the nature of capitalist development and the structures of inequality that accompanied economic change. These linkages are important in light of the emphasis on public and collaborative anthropology in the new department.
  • Trace the chronology and genealogy of major theoretical approaches to see why and how theories that developed at a particular time shaped those that followed. For example, we follow texts by Marx with work by Max Weber in order to understand how Weber drew on and expanded Marxist notions of social class. We follow Weber with Geertz to show how Weber’s notion of “verstehen” or understanding and his attention to the ways individuals and groups interpret their own life worlds led to the interpretive anthropology approach most closely associated with Geertz.


  • Identify an argument and its components.
  • Identify the arguments and conceptual methodologies of the major approaches to anthropology in the past 80 years.
  • Critically evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of these disciplinary approaches.
  • Gain an appreciation of what big questions are being asked by anthropologists today and how they compare with those of our disciplinary forbears.
  • Identify the ways that the work of past anthropologists has influenced contemporary theorists and how anthropology theory is constructed over time.
  • Begin to comprehend how social science is constructed in particular social, national, and historical contexts.
  • Learn to write a synthetic essay that revolves around theoretical argumentation, identifying how such arguments are substantiated ethnographically, and outlining the strengths and weaknesses of approaches through contrast and comparison.
  • Begin to develop a notion of what theory consists of in social sciences and how it impacts upon empirical research.

Course Assessment Tools

  • 2 reflection essays, 25%, total of 50%
  • 8 response papers, posted to Blackboard before class sessions, total of 25%
  • Class participation, including class coordination, regular attendance, and participation in class discussion, total of 25%

Our expectation is that the course will bring together all of the other coursework and field experience that majors have had over their undergraduate careers. For those continuing on to graduate work in the social sciences, we anticipate that this course will prepare students to conceptualize the discipline in a fundamental way, thus facilitating their graduate study. For those who choose other careers, we hope that the emphasis on the nature and development of theory, on critical reading, and on the construction of arguments will serve them well in a general sense as skills that are applicable across a range of circumstances.