Writing for success in Anthropology

Our understanding often advances through a variety of contrary viewpoints and emphases.

As with related disciplines like philosophy and political science, anthropology is vital and interesting because of the internal tension created by opposing arguments.

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.

Because of this, your anthropology essays need to demonstrate not only your factual knowledge, but your ability to asses arguments and counter-arguments about particular problems.

Setting out the essay

Presenting your essay well is part of the writing exercise. Essays should be typed, with spelling, punctuation, grammar and formatting carefully checked for correctness. Aim for the quality of a manuscript being submitted to an academic journal. However, markers are prepared to be tolerant of small imperfections – especially if your ideas make it worthwhile!

When formatting your essay:

  • use A4 pages
  • margins should be at least 2.5cm wide
  • use double spacing
  • give your essay an appropriate title – this could be a simple statement of your topic, or a catchy phrase referring to a key aspect of your argument
  • left-align your text, rather than justifying
  • use page numbers
  • check your unit's iLearn page and unit guide for instructions on submitting your essay.

Assessment criteria

The content of your essay should be relevant to the question or problem you've selected. Leave out material that is not directly related to it.

Make your essay well-informed by reading as widely as possible. As a rule of thumb, an essay should cite at least five or six items.

Your essay needs to be based on your own thinking, not just your familiarity with the literature. Quoting and paraphrasing other authors' work should only make up a small part of your essay. We don't expect you to come up with original insights in the early years of your study, but we do expect a serious effort to evaluate how your readings bear on the problem. Try:

  • comparing and contrasting the work of different writers
  • consider the arguments and data used by one author in relation to other works you're referencing. What are the implications?

Let your readings stimulate your thoughts about the essay topic, and then write an informed argument based on what you think about the problem.

Structure your essay to show the logical steps in your argument, bringing in data from various sources 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 comes through careful essay planning, followed by re-reading and revising during the writing process. Not bothering to review and revise your essay before submitting it is the easiest way to lower the quality of your work.

Structure your essay by:

  1. beginning with an introduction that foreshadows your argument
  2. developing your discussion, ensuring that sentences and paragraphs follow logically from one another
  3. defining terms if there is disagreement in the literature about what they mean. Choose an appropriate place to do this – usually where the term is first mentioned. Keep in mind that for specialist concepts, the literature is a better source of definitions than the dictionary
  4. drawing together the threads of your argument in your conclusion, and presenting a final response to the problem.

Don't get bogged down in masses of factual detail. A descriptive account of what people of a certain society do qualifies as ethnography, but not anthropology.

Don't lose touch with the facts while discussing pure abstract concepts, either. Opinions and theories that aren't supported by reasoning and evidence will fail.

The purpose of writing an essay is to grapple with the relationship between abstract ideas and concrete facts – to think about how best to understand the facts.

Express your ideas clearly and concisely. Write complete sentences, keeping them 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 will help you to recognise awkward phrasing, 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'.

Avoiding plagiarism

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.

Quoting or paraphrasing 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. Plagiarised work will be penalised, and may receive no marks at all.

Harvard referencing style

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&row.com/duck_soup.html (29 Feb. 1999).

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Last updated: 17 Dec 2019