How to write an anthropology essay

How to write an anthropology essay

In anthropology you are expected to read widely and critically. You will soon discover that much of anthropology consists of argument about how social facts are to be interpreted. 

Our understanding often advances through a variety of contrary viewpoints and emphases. As in related disciplines such as sociology, political science and philosophy, there is an internal tension generated by the opposition of arguments that gives anthropology much of its vitality and interest. Anthropology is not so much a unified body of knowledge as it is a dialectical, on-going production.

Few issues in anthropology have been resolved. You won't find many generally accepted 'answers', and there are no single authorities who can tell you all you need to know. This means that we expect your essays to demonstrate not just factual knowledge but also some ability to present and assess arguments and counter-arguments about particular problems.

The criteria by which we assess are:

  1. Relevance: The content of your essay should be relevant to the question or problem you've selected. Don't include material not directly related to it.
  2. Well-informed: Your essay should be well-informed. Read as widely as possible. As a rule of thumb, an essay should cite at least five or six items.
  3. Your own thinking and your own words: Familiarity with the literature is essential but not sufficient. Your essay must be based on your own thinking. Only a minor part should be direct quotations or material that is merely a modified or condensed version of another author's work. Extensive quotation or paraphrase isn't acceptable, as it doesn't evidence your thinking about your reading.We don't expect you to come up with original insights at this stage of your studies. But we do expect a serious effort to evaluate how the readings bear on the problem. One way to proceed is by comparing and contrasting the work of different writers. Consider the implications of the arguments and data used by one author for other works you are also referring to in your essay.Think for yourself and say what you think. By this we don't mean to encourage rash, unconsidered statements. Rather, we hope you will be stimulated by your reading and that you will make the effort to think through the issues raised. 
  4. Organisation: Your essay should be constructed in a way that shows the logical steps in your argument, with data from various sources being brought in as appropriate. Remember that paragraphs are the organisational 'building blocks' of an essay and that each paragraph should have a main idea or theme. Good organisation can only be achieved by careful planning and frequent re-reading and revision of your writing as you proceed. Authors who haven't taken the trouble to review and revise their essays before submitting seldom succeed.
    • Begin with an introduction that foreshadows your argument.
    • Develop your discussion progressively and coherently. Ensure that sentences and paragraphs follow logically from one another.
    • Your conclusion should draw together the threads of your argument and present a final answer to or assessment of the problem.
    • If there seems to be disagreement in the literature about the meaning of certain terms, mention this and state how you intend to use the term(s). Choose an appropriate place to define terms --usually where the particular term is first mentioned. Dictionary definitions are often inadequate when it comes to specialist concepts. Use a definition from the literature by preference.
  5. A balance between abstraction and concreteness: Avoid the extremes of getting bogged down in masses of factual detail or of floating off into realms of pure abstraction. The essential point of writing an essay is to grapple with the relation between abstractions/theories and facts -- to think about how best to understand the facts. A descriptive account simply of what the people of this or that society do may quality as ethnography, but it doesn't rise to the level of anthropology. Conversely, a statement of opinions, theories or abstractions unsupported by reasoning and factual evidence similarly fails.
  6. Expression: Take special care to express your ideas as clearly and concisely as possible. Write complete sentences and keep them as short and succinct as possible. We are interested in what you know and think, and will not penalise occasional errors in expression. The best way to find out whether your essay is well-written is to have someone read it. An alternative is to read it aloud to yourself. This can help you to recognise the syntactically awkward bits, and it may help you to see the mis-spellings and other errors. The Vice-Chancellor has asked that writing skills be taken into account in the overall assessment of work, and particularly that 'Markers should insist that ideas and facts should be expressed accurately and adequately, and should penalise the sort of writing which calls on them to provide a charitable interpretation of notions which have been vaguely or misleadingly expressed'. 
  7. Referencing: Never quote or use an author's work in any way without acknowledging it. You must always indicate where in the literature you obtained the facts, concepts and points of view which you discuss in your essay. When quoting an author verbatim always show this with quotation marks and a citation. You must also indicate where a summary of someone else's work or ideas ends and your own discussion is resumed.


To quote or paraphrase another person's work without acknowledgment is plagiarism, i.e. the presentation of the words and ideas of another writer as your own. Plagiarism demonstrates that the writer has failed to think independently, and it is unjust to writers who do honest work. To the extent that work is plagiarised it loses value, and depending on the amount plagiarised, may receive no marks at all.

The following "in-text" or Harvard style of referencing is recommended for all Anthropology essays:

Place a citation in brackets in the text of the essay, e.g. 'Fox (1967,p.72) made the point that.' or 'Fox argues that incest is "not so much prevented as avoided" (1967, p.72).' This system, sometimes called the 'Harvard' system, is used in most anthropological publications and is the preferred style of referencing for all essay work in the Department.

Arrange the entries in your bibliography alphabetically by author's surname. The list should include all and only the references cited in the text. Underline or, if available, use italics for the titles of books and journals. For example:

Fox, R. 1967. Kinship and Marriage. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Peacock, J.L. 1969. 'Mystics and merchants in fourteenth century Germany.' Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 8:47-59.
Tiger, L. 1975. 'Somatic factors and social behaviour.' In R. Fox (ed.) Biosocial Anthropology. London: Malaby.
Tiger, L. & Fox, R. 1986. 'The zoological perspective in social science.' Man. 1:75-81.
Wolf, E. 1969. 'On peasant rebellions.' International Social Science Journal 21:286-294.
______ 1982. Europe and the People Without History. Berkeley: University of California Press.

If you have read about someone's work in another publication, e.g. Fox (1967) mentions Leach (1961), but you haven't read the original Leach article, make this clear, e.g. 'Leach's 1961 paper (cited in Fox 1967)....' If you want to quote from a secondary source you should indicate both the original author and the secondary source, e.g. 'Fox (1967:32) quotes Leach's point that "... ."'

When quoting from a particular book or article for a second or further time in your essay, and when in the meantime you have not cited any other item, simply reference by the abbreviation 'ibid.'.

When referring more than once to a work by several authors there is no need to repeat all their names every time. E.g., first reference: (Tiger, Fox and Pike 1975); subsequent references: (Tiger et al.). Et al. means 'and others'.

If there are two authors with the same surname in your bibliography, distinguish them in references by initials. If there are two items by the same author and published in the same year, distinguish both citations and bibliographic entries as, e.g., (Lyons 1981a) and (Lyons 1981b).

Internet referencing: Web pages should be referenced similarly to books, beginning with the author or organisation responsible for the site, year of posting on the net (if given) and the title of the homepage. The publisher and place of publication is replaced by the URL address of the page. After the URL put in parentheses the date you accessed the page. (The date is sometimes informative if the page version changes or the site disappears.) So,

Flywheel, Wolf J. 1997. Marxist Duck Soup. New York: Harper and Rowboat.

might in a web page become:

Flywheel, Wolf J. 1997. Marxist Duck Soup. http://www.harp& (29 Feb. 1999).

Setting out the essay

The presentation of your essay is an important part of the writing exercise. Although we expect essays to be word-processed or typed, we will accept hand-written essays if they are legible. An ideal essay would resemble a manuscript for submission to the editor of an academic journal. Every aspect of spelling, punctuation, grammar and formatting would be checked for correctness and the essay as a physical production would be as neat as possible. This is the council of perfection, however, and markers are prepared to be tolerant -especially if your ideas make it worth while!

Paper: Use standard A4 paper.

Margins: All margins should be at least an inch (or 2.5cm) wide. The left margin is often wider, to allow space for binding and/or marker's comments.

Line spacing: Word-processed and typed essays should have double-spaced lines, for clarity and to provide space for marker's comments. If you are using a small type face, 1.5 line spacing is OK.

Title: Give your essay an appropriate title. The title can be a simplification of the topic being addressed or perhaps a catchy phrase that refers to a key aspect of your argument. Your name can appear below the title if you like. Your title should be in bold type and/or underlined, and title and author's name should be centred on the first page.

Justification: Left justification only is usually preferable to full justification (i.e. left and right but not centred), because the latter can introduce large spaces between words that interfere with readability.

Page numbers: should be on all pages but the first, where the number is optional

Submission: Please check your unit iLearn page and /or unit guide about instructions on the submission process.

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