Guidelines for Writing in Anthropology

  1. Citation and Style: Anthropology utilizes Chicago Style in-text citations (e.g., Roberts 2015, 146-7); and requires a bibliography. Do not use footnotes.
    1. Citation and Style Guides:
      1. AAA Anthropology Style Guide
      2. Doyle Online Writing Lab
      3. Strunk, William, and E. B White. The Elements of Style. 3rd ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2000. Print or Online
  1. General Guidelines for Writing in Anthropology: What follows are some basic tips and considerations for writing in the discipline of anthropology.
    1. Organize Evidence: Anthropological writing requires that you organize ethnographic data (descriptions of activities and events, oral narratives) and other types of evidence (such as historical accounts, newspapers, maps, etc.) to describe and analyze a phenomenon, event or cultural feature/practice.
    2. Identify a Compelling Question: While analyzing ethnographic data you should seek to identify anthropologically significant or interesting patterns in relation to the body of literature you’re working from (course readings, in our case).
    3. Think Critically, and Fairly: Throughout the process, you should critically question cultural norms and linguistically coded presumptions - those of your interlocutors as well as your own.
      1. One of the most common errors we see in new researchers is some kind of ethnocentrism, or lapse in cultural relativism. Inexperienced researchers often attribute an emotion or value to why people are doing what they are doing. For example, if you notice all the people who present as men at a meeting are only speaking to other people who present the same way; it would be reductionist to attribute this to simple sexism.
      2. The job of the anthropologist is to investigate why this appears to be a standard mode of interaction at this particular meeting, with these particular participants.
      3. Commenting that something is weird, for example, is not an anthropological statement – nor does it aid in conducting an anthropological analysis. Things in your research context may be different than what you expect, but we do not judge those differences.
      4. Thinking anthropologically requires temporarily suspending ones’ assumptions about how the world works, about what is normal, and strange. In other words, anthropology exhorts its practitioners to be culturally and linguistically relativeto try to understand cultural and linguistic difference on their own terms. Anthropological thinking refuses ethnocentrism and attempts to see difference without arranging that difference in a hierarchy.
  1. What is the structure of an anthropology paper? (see also: Final paper template)
    1. A Title that clearly reflects the thesis statement or main point of the paper.
    2. 1-2 Opening Paragraph(s), with a clear thesis statement, should let the reader know what to expect from the rest of the paper. This latter point is achieved by developing a clear organization, and following it throughout the paper.
      1. A thesis statement is the controlling idea of an essay which presents the topic and the writer's perspective on that subject. An explicit statement, it focuses and limits the topic and usually occurs at the beginning of the paper. The thesis statement should contain an organizing principle or theme for the paper.
      2. Clear organization provides a map of the papers’ argument for the reader. The argument should be logically arranged so that a lay-person can follow it. Keep your audience in mind – they are not inside your mind.
      3. Your paper should explicitly engage at least ONE reading from the course syllabus. Define the methodological concepts of your discussion early on: how will your fieldwork data illustrate or challenge those concepts? If you introduce the term crosstalk in the first paragraph but fail to define it until the fifth, you will have simultaneously lost and annoyed your reader.
    3. The Body paragraphs each should have a clear topic sentence and expound upon a single idea that is transparently connected to the main thesis and supported by evidence. Your body paragraphs should transition smoothly from one the next while developing the thesis of your paper.
      1. A topic sentence controls the focus and direction of the paragraph.
      2. Evidence may be in the form of quotations (or paraphrasing) from your fieldwork notes, scholarly sources, statistical data, or other scholarly material that supports a position or argument.
    4. Your Conclusion should serve as a capstone to the paper. The conclusion should not be a simple restatement or summary of the rest of the paper. The conclusion should be strong and interesting, driving your thesis forward. Lead your readers into a new headspace – push them to think about your thesis in its totality and consider its future consequences. A caution: posing new questions in the conclusion often leads the reader feeling like there is no conclusion.
  1. Style? Some things to consider if you wish your writing to be legible to others.
    1. Closed Narratives: New writers often produce a closed narrative. A closed narrative is one that relies on its own internal logic – a logic that remains unknown to the reader and does not appear in obvious dialogue with scholarly sources.
      1. It’s not enough to cite scholarly sources, you have to tell the reader why that source, quotation, paraphrase, etc., is of any use or importance. You have to connect that source to the thesis of the paper, and to the other sources in the paper.
    2. Active or Passive Voice?
      1. While passive voice is not a grammatical error, the overuse of the passive voice can very easily confound the reader. The passive voice obscures the person who is doing the action. Whereas, in active voice, the subject who is doing the action comes first – this is usually much clearer for the reader. For example:
        1. ACTIVE: The students produced well written, stylistically appropriate essays.
        2. PASSIVE: Well written, stylistically appropriate essays were produced by the students.
          1. Note: overuse of the passive voice is not poetic, nor does it sound cleverer, or smart. I promise.
        3. Wordiness: Be concise. Verbosity is not poetic, either. For example:
          1. Charlene suggests that we strive to pay attention to our writing so as to avoid overly verbose passages.
          2. Charlene said to avoid excessive wordiness.
        4. Vary Your Length: Your body paragraphs should vary in length; a good rule in a paper of this length is to have paragraphs between 6-9 sentences. A little over, a little under – is fine. Just remember: two sentences do not make a paragraph.
          1. When proofreading watch for long sentences. Be careful not to cram too many ideas (especially competing ones) in a single sentence.
          2. Shorter sentences are often far clearer than their rambling counterparts. Ask yourself: Are your sentences composed of a series of incomplete clauses delimited only by an absurd number of commas?