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Tips for Writing a Departmental Honors Thesis in Anthropology

Preparing to Write a Thesis

What habits and actions will enable success?

 An undergraduate thesis project requires discipline in planning and execution from start to finish. Some key considerations include the following.


Once you decide to complete a thesis project after preliminary discussion with your adviser, take some time to think about what you would like your finished project to look like. Read through several recently completed undergraduate thesis projects in the department, and form some general ideas about your topic, approach, and final product. Think about what might cause you to be delayed, or even unsuccessful, or how you will counter those possibilities.


Workplace, work space, calendar, materials, ideas, records, meetings, files – if you find that the level of organization in any these aspects is lacking, make the changes needed to enable your success. 


Develop a written timeline for completion. Your adviser can help you identify the key steps and milestones and the amount of time you should allocate for each. Then work backward from the thesis submission deadlines to develop your timeline.


Designing and completing the thesis project will be challenging in the midst of your other academic and student activities. However, if you don’t give the project the time and effort it requires, you will miss your deadlines and/or be disappointed in the quality of the end product. Your thesis is an extra project that will require extra time and effort to complete.

Barriers to Success

As you begin your thesis planning and throughout the project, honestly identify those factors that are preventing you from doing your best work and take the actions needed to reduce or eliminate each of those barriers.

Daily Focus and Energy

Momentum is a critical element of completing a high quality thesis project. If you do not make a daily investment, even if for only 30 minutes, to address the next actions in your thesis project, you run the risk of trying to recapture thoughts and conversations and missing key milestones along the way. Reading, thinking, discussing, planning, and writing should become routine actions for generating and maintaining momentum in your thesis project. If you find that days or even weeks have passed without much thought or action on your thesis project, identify what’s preventing you from giving your thesis the time and effort it needs and address accordingly.

Your completed thesis document should reflect your personal best in formal writing and analysis. This includes sentence composition, grammar, punctuation, style (your adviser may suggest a specific style manual), flow of ideas, accuracy, literature citations, level of thought and analysis, and overall organization. Develop an outline for each chapter in consultation with your adviser before writing the full text. Edit your work carefully after multiple readings, and ask another capable person to give you honest feedback on your draft before submitting it to your adviser.


Tips for Writing a Thesis

What Is a Thesis?

A thesis is a manuscript that presents an argument or assertion and supports it through logical claims and factual evidence, or data. The thesis must be analytic rather than descriptive. While the focus of your thesis will be the discussion of some set of anthropological phenomena, it should not simply present information, however important and interesting that information may be. Rather, and in addition, the thesis should represent an analysis of the phenomena, a theoretical and interpretive understanding of them; in other words, it should have an “argument.” This may mean simply stating a good, strong causal thesis and collecting data and logical arguments to support it (remember to include significant contrary facts and theories). Avoid a paper that is only, or even mostly, descriptive. A rule of thumb is that roughly one-third of the paper should be analysis, and two-thirds should be description and presentation of evidence.

Theoretical Framework

Given these expectations, your thesis should have some theoretical component. Regardless of your topic or subfield, you are expected to develop a theoretical framework of some kind. There are several ways to do this. 

  1. You may wish to use theoretical propositions to frame the argument, to elaborate and sustain the analysis, and to "explain" the phenomena.
  2. You may wish to criticize existing theoretical propositions using your data and interpretations.
  3. You may wish to bring together various theories to formulate a more original model.


Your data constitutes the evidence that you will use to support your argument. The data you analyze may come from various sources. You may undertake your own research, perhaps through a stint in the field or the laboratory. Alternately, you may reanalyze data that have already been collected and published. In either case, you will probably want to supplement your data with background library and historical research. Regardless of the kind of work you do, your goal should be to provide the reader with an understanding of the problem and data. What makes your essay a thesis is that you go beyond narrative and description to include analysis and argument. What makes it anthropology is the centrality of problems and phenomena related to the concerns – archaeological, biological, or cultural – of our discipline.


The analytical nature of the senior thesis has several implications for its organization. First, of course, the whole thing has to have a point and there should be no doubt to the reader what that point is. Perhaps the best piece of advice here is to make explicit to the reader what is obvious and implicit to you, the writer, steeped as you are in your own material. This does not mean that your research must follow the “logico-deductive” pattern; in fact, anthropological research often does not present argumentation in any particular straightforward manner. However, when writing the thesis, you should try to arrange the material so that the reader will understand the direction of the whole. This requires some “big-picture” planning and organization.

Your thesis should have a beginning, a middle, and an end – in other words, an introduction, a "body," and a conclusion. The introduction should state the problem and the manner in which you are going to discuss and analyze it. The body of the thesis should present evidence in support of your argument in some explicit, logical order, so that the reader will understand the relevance or purpose of each section. Finally, the conclusion should summarize the points you have made, recapitulate the argument and its strengths and weaknesses, and perhaps address again the theoretical issues that were used in approaching and analyzing the problem; you should also explain how you have modified your view of these issues in the course of conducting the analysis.


Senior theses may range from 35 to 100 pages in length. Laboratory theses or those with heavily quantitative analyses may be 40 to 60 pages, while those with discursive arguments tend to be longer. Cultural Anthropology theses will ordinarily be between 60 to 80 pages. You should be wary of exceeding these limits in either direction. Long, verbose theses in particular are often poorly written, edited, and argued.


You should address yourself to a well-informed reader. Avoid repetition, unnecessary detail, and irrelevance in both data and analysis. Use your own style — and use this opportunity to develop your own authorial voice — but, in any case, write clearly. In the process of composing and preparing the manuscript, do not neglect the details of good expository writing. The pleasure and the understanding of the reader (and perhaps your grade) can be undercut by inattentiveness to style, form, grammar, punctuation, spelling, and citations.

Specific Points


All students completing a senior thesis should prepare a thesis proposal that addresses the following points: introduction/summary; background information; theoretical perspective and/or hypothesis to be tested; methods for collecting and analyzing data; and significance of project. This proposal should be completed prior to the beginning of the project — typically in the fall of the senior year. 

Credit Hours 

All senior thesis students must enroll in ANTH 495H for two of the three terms of their senior year. Students enrolled in this course will receive a grade of CR rather than a letter grade. These credits do not count toward the 55 hours required for the B.A. in anthropology.

IRB Approval

All projects require the approval of the Ohio University Institutional Review Board. Please plan to submit the required paperwork to the IRB two weeks prior to the commencement of data collection.


There are various sources of funding to support undergraduate research at Ohio University. These funds are often competitive. A strong thesis proposal can be transformed into a strong application for funds. These deadlines typically arise in the spring and fall quarters; be sure to maintain contact with your adviser about them.


Thesis committees involve a minimum of two and a maximum of three experts in the field. These committee members may be faculty members in anthropology or other related departments, practicing anthropologists, or other professional in related fields (for example, museum studies). At least one of the committee members (other than the adviser) must be a member of the anthropology program. Students typically approach potential committee members, after consulting with their advisers, in the fall semesterIt may be useful to provide a copy of the thesis proposal at this time in order to provide some background on the project at hand. In the spring semester, the student will schedule a full meeting of the committee to defend the conclusions of the thesis. The full thesis committee must reach a consensus on the successful defense of the thesis.

Note: The Anthropology program and the College of Arts & Sciences have specific guidelines for binding, formatting, title pages, references, notes, and tables. Please be sure to follow these guidelines closely.

Detailed Thesis Guidance and Suggestions

Your completed thesis document should reflect your personal best in formal writing and analysis. This includes sentence composition, grammar, punctuation, style (your adviser may suggest a specific style manual), flow of ideas, accuracy, literature citations, level of thought and analysis, and overall organization. Develop an outline for each chapter in consultation with your adviser before writing the full text. Edit your work carefully after multiple readings, and ask another capable person to give you honest feedback on your draft before submitting it to your adviser.

Backup your computer files on a daily basis.

How should I work with my adviser in planning, conducting, and writing my thesis? The thesis project is a joint effort between you and your adviser, but in reality, it is YOUR project. Take the initiative to schedule meetings, plan discussion topics and questions for the meetings, and make notes about what was decided at each meeting and your next actions. Schedule regular (weekly) meetings with your adviser as you plan, conduct, and write your thesis. Give your adviser ample time to read drafts of your work before you meet. Seek your adviser’s help in resolving any roadblocks along the way.

How do I obtain IRB (Institutional Review Board) approval? Ohio University must ensure that research conducted under its jurisdiction does not present unreasonable risks to subjects or volunteers. Faculty, staff, and students conducting the research are primarily responsible for safeguarding the welfare of study participants. IRB approval of the proposed research procedures must be obtained before data collection begins. See Ohio University Research Compliance for additional information and the IRB submission form.

What constitutes plagiarism? A major ethical standard in research focuses on appropriately recognizing and crediting the work of others who have contributed to the body of knowledge in a given area. Plagiarism is simply using someone else’s ideas or wording without giving due credit. When you present an idea in your thesis project that originated from another source (written or spoken), even if you modified the wording or parts of the idea, credit to the original source should be given. The thesis is a scholarly work, and as such, extensive citation from the literature is expected. As you make notes from a source, indicate clearly whether your notes are a direct quote or a paraphrased interpretation. If direct quotes are used, the page number is required for a complete citation. Plagiarism software is widely available and routinely used by professors and journal editors.

What are the elements of my thesis research proposal and completed project? Undergraduate thesis projects mirror master’s thesis projects but the scope of the study and final product are usually scaled down considerably. The anthropology discipline typically uses a five-chapter approach for theses as shown on the following page. Check with your adviser for additional points. Typical page lengths (double spaced) are shown in parentheses.

  • Cover Page
  • Table of Contents
  • Abstract (150-250 words) — Provides a summary of the overall study. The format for the abstract usually follows these areas. Please note that you do not label the sections (purpose, methods, etc.), but you include the sentences as described below:
    • Purpose: “The purpose of this study…” (one sentence).
    • Methods: Usually one to two sentences on how this study was conducted and who the sample or population was.
    • Results: Usually two to three brief sentences on the major findings from the study.
    • Conclusion: One to two sentences on the major implications or ramifications from the study.
  • Chapter 1 — Introduction (2-4 pages)
    • Provides the background and setting needed to put the problem in proper context and justifies the need for the study.
    • Contains facts, trends, and points of view (opinions) as drawn from the professional literature in anthropology and any relevant areas. The presentation of these key points should flow from general trends and concerns to the specific problem/challenge that you will address in your thesis research.
    • Provides a logical lead-in to a clear statement of the problem, which is followed by the purpose of the study and the research objectives that you will pursue.
    • Chapter 1 also includes a list of any assumptions and limitations, as well as a section (Significance of the Study) that explains what groups could potentially benefit from the study and how/why.
  • Chapter 2 — Review of Literature (4-6 pages)
    • Presents the results of previous research related to your study topic, organized by the key variables in your study. A conceptual model showing the relationships among variables related to your research problem can also be included.
    • For survey research or other quantitative study, Chapter 2 indicates the theory upon which the study is based. Qualitative studies usually build theory rather than apply or test theory. Thus, in these studies less attention is given to theory in Chapter 2. Provides the rationale for hypotheses (if stated).
  • Chapter 3 — Procedures or Methodology (2-4 pages)
    • Describes in detail the step-by-step procedures used in collecting and analyzing data.
    • Possible sections of Chapter 3 include research design, subject selection, instrumentation, data collection, data analysis, chapter summary and others. Talk with your adviser about adjustments in this chapter if you are undertaking a qualitative study.
  •  Chapter 4 — Findings (page length varies based on study, usually 4-7 pages)
    • Reports all results obtained, including appropriate statistics and descriptions of data.
    • Includes facts only – what was found with explanation, but not interpretation or conjecture by the researcher. Is organized and written around objectives of the study (research questions or hypotheses).
  •  Chapter 5 — Summary and Conclusion (typically 3-5 pages)
    • Briefly summarizes intent, procedures, and findings of study.
    • States conclusions based upon findings (first point in paper where the researcher is allowed to include his or her own interpretations).
    • Describes how findings support or refute related studies (Implications for Current Knowledge).
    • Describes implications of findings for those groups affected by the program/findings (Implications for Practice).
    • Includes recommendations for practice based upon findings and conclusions, if applicable.
    • Includes recommendations for further research.
  • Appendices
    • Includes copies of all correspondence, instrumentation, and other written communication used in carrying out the research.
    • Includes special lists (i.e., expert panel members, etc.).
  • References
    • Includes complete bibliographic information for all references cited in the text (use accepted style manual, such as APA, American Antiquity, or other professional guidelines decided with your adviser).

Note: Chapters 1-3 above constitute the thesis research proposal. In writing the proposal, verb tense is future tense (e.g., “will be”). Note that specific rules apply to verb tense. With few exceptions, past events and past research/writings should be described using past tense verbs. Past trends that still continue should be described using present perfect tense (e.g., has been). Present tense is used only to describe the contents of a table or other section in the thesis itself and when stating conclusions. The use of “it” and “there” to begin sentences should be avoided, unless “it” clearly refers to a preceding noun.

Other Considerations

Your thesis research should address a known, real problem in anthropology. Your project will be designed and conducted in an attempt to help resolve the identified problem. Thus, your research problem can be drawn from your personal experiences and observations, from others’ observations and opinions, or from previous research. The problem you choose to research should be related to a significant or major problem, as generally viewed by experts in the profession.  A key question to ask as you and your adviser discuss potential thesis projects is, “Who needs and could benefit from this research?” The second fundamental question to ask when identifying your research topic and interpreting the results is, “So what?” That is, of what value will/is the research, to whom, and why? Your study should attempt to inform or solve a problem in the field. Try to go beyond merely describing a situation or population and design your study so it has the potential to provide solutions.

Keeping these aspects in mind throughout your research and in developing your conclusion will make your thesis better.

Here are additional guidelines, similar to the above, but include more insight about certain parts of the thesis and common mistakes. 

Chapter 1

  1. The introduction should establish a chain of reasoning/logic and smoothly flow from one key point to the next.
  2. Chapter 1 summarizes the “opinion literature” on your topic.
  3. Use the most recent references available, and use original sources unless they are out of print.
  4. Use past tense or present perfect tense in your writing. Only use future tense for the proposal to describe what you will do.
  5. Common grammatical errors include using “data” as a singular noun (should be “data are”) and beginning a sentence with “it” and “there.”
  6. Your list of definitions should include all terms not commonly understood. These words should be “operationally defined” for your study. For example, provide a definition and citation on motivation, followed by a statement that says, “In this study motivation was defined as the subject’s score on the Britton Motivation Questionnaire.”
  7. Build your reference list as you go. Cite sources using APA style, and check the elements of each citation to prevent a return trip to the library to get the missing elements.
  8. Limitations are any restrictions in the study – population, sample, time, geography, and so on.

Chapter 2

A theory is a generalization or series of generalizations by which we attempt to explain some phenomenon in a systematic manner. Our field includes many theories about learning, leading, communicating. Theory is derived from research, observations, and logical analysis and is commonly presented in books and published research. Chapter 2 includes the underlying theory base for your study, research findings from past studies that are related to your topic, and a conceptual model in the form of a diagram or concept map that combines the theory and previous research (see the example on page 7), showing the relationship between variables that may influence the phenomenon you are studying. With few exceptions, previous research findings are reported in journals (e.g., Journal of Agricultural Education, Journal of Extension, Journal of Leadership Education, Journal of Applied Communications, etc.) and technical reports. Your outline for Chapter 2 should be derived from the major variables in your study. Focus on recently published research (last 10 years), while including any works that are considered classics in the field. When you find an article that seems related to your study, read the abstract to verify, then focus on the population studied, the results, and conclusions.

Chapter 3

Chapter 3 is the research methods chapter and is based largely on the decisions you and your adviser make about how to conduct your study. Elements of Chapter 3 typically include one or more introductory paragraphs, research design (specify the design and explain its limitations), population and sample, instrumentation (the tools that you will use to collect data), data collection procedures, data analysis procedures, and a chapter summary. Talk to your adviser about modification of this outline if you are conducting a qualitative study.

Chapter 4

Chapter 4 is where you present the findings of your research. These should be clear and carefully linked to the hypotheses that you proposed to address in your research. You should not try to link your findings to broader topics and issues in the field – this will come in Chapter 5.

Chapter 5

Chapter 5 is the discussion and conclusion chapter. Here you should link your findings to broader topics in the field of anthropology. You should directly say how your results fill a certain research gap or address a problem in the field. Your conclusion should concisely summarize your work with a brief statement of its importance. You may provide suggestions for future directions in research, but this section should be brief (e.g., 2-3 sentences).

Final Thoughts

Completing a high quality undergraduate thesis project requires initiative, careful planning, frequent communication with your adviser, disciplined inquiry, and sound judgment and decision making. After you have completed your study, your adviser may encourage you to submit a proposal to present your research at a regional or national conference and/or to submit a manuscript to a journal for review and possible publication. Your adviser will also assist you in developing an executive summary of your research that can be shared with practitioners in the field. This is the best way to ensure that your thesis project has value by providing insight and potential solutions to a significant problem faced by one or more stakeholder groups.

 (Adapted from Department. of Agricultural Education and Communication at the University of Florida)