How To Study Anthropology

Many students are surprised to discover that anthropology is an intellectually exciting and stimulating field of study. The study of anthropology also helps students develop critical thinking skills that will prepare them for a variety of job opportunities and career paths.

There are four major areas of study within the field of anthropology: archaeology, physical anthropology (sometimes called biological anthropology), linguistic anthropology and socio-cultural anthropology (also known as ethnology).

Two of the most critical skills you should focus on developing, if you want to excel in your studies of anthropology, or earn a degree in this field, are reading and writing. Reading and writing skills are essential to the study of anthropology.


If you’re majoring in anthropology you can expect a pretty hefty reading load. It’s not uncommon for college students studying anthropology to be assigned over 200 pages to read in any given week for their classes. The better your reading ability, the better you’ll do as you pursue an education or degree in anthropology.

New students often struggle to read anthropological articles and essays for two reasons. First, anthropologic texts tend to be full of ethnographic details that students can get lost in. Second, anthropological texts often use a style of presenting arguments in an unfamiliar way that employs theoretical language.

The following are some reading tips and strategies for the study of anthropology.

  • Read actively, not passively.
    Active reading involves questioning, critiquing, re-examining and engaging in the text you’re reading. It requires greater concentration and focus while you read and leads to improved understanding of the information that’s most important. Passive readers pay little attention to the main ideas, are disengaged, and avoid re-reading or asking questions about what they’re reading. They simply want to get through the assigned pages. Active reading is KEY to the study of anthropology.
  • Pick a good time to read.
    Reading social science texts and articles requires concentration. It’s not like reading a novel, story, or news article that you can do in your leisure when you’re feeling mentally tired or sleepy. Anthropological essays, articles and other texts should be read when you are most alert and energetic, as they require concentration and attention.
  • Engage in Reading.
    As already mentioned, active reading is key to the effective study of anthropology. The most important element of active reading is engagement in the text. As you read, attempt to answer the following questions:

    – What is the main point the author is trying to communicate?
    – Who are the interlocutors (persons who take part in the dialogue or conversation)?
    – What is the conversation that is taking place between the author and interlocutors?
    – What are the concepts or ideas the author is trying to communicate?
    – What methodology does the author use for his or her research? What evidence is presented? What is ignored?
    – How does the reading assignment relate to other passages you’ve read and themes discussed during classroom lectures?
    – Is the author effective at making his or her case?

    Answering these questions often requires going back and forth and re-reading parts of the text again.
  • Social science articles are rarely linear.
    Unlike novels or stories which are structured around a single plot, anthropological texts and articles rarely employ a linear narrative. Consequently, you can’t read anthropological texts like you would a novel. You often have to jump around and read the individual parts to make sense of how they fit together.
  • Skim read.
    Skimming a text allows you to quickly develop a structure for the article, identify its key components, and develop an overall idea of what the article is about. Start by reading the title. Then proceed to the introductory paragraphs, subtitles, section titles and any questions presented. Also, find out when the article was written to help develop context. As you skim, try to identify the general themes the article is presenting.
  • Analyze what you’ve read.
    After you’ve finished skimming the article and have a general sense of the main points, ideas, and arguments being put forth, read the article for detail. Then paraphrase the main arguments the author is making. Why does the author feel his or her argument is important and valid? Do you agree or disagree with the author? Why? Write down your position with respect to the main ideas established in the article, supported by your own evidence and conclusions.


Writing is a big component of the study of anthropology. If you struggle to write effectively, and convincingly, you’ll struggle with anthropology. There are also nuances to writing style and conventions that are unique to the study of anthropology that students need to know and employ in their own writing.

Below we’ll explore types of writing in anthropology, writing styles and conventions, and tips for effective anthropological writing.

Types of Writing in Anthropology

In your study of anthropology, you’ll encounter several types of writing. Three of the most common include:

  • Personal Reflection
    Also referred to as journal-entry style personal reflections, this type of writing requires students to develop a connection between what they’ve learned through the study of classroom material and reading with their own beliefs, views, and experiences. This form of writing is less focused on mechanics and more focused on authentic engagement in the topic.
  • Short Essay
    Short essays may ask you to analyze information and concepts introduced from classroom discussion, lectures, or assigned readings. You’ll often be asked to engage in a controversial topic. Mechanics of writing are very important in the development of short essays. Strong organization and good development of ideas is essential.
  • Research Paper
    Research papers are a common type of writing that anthropology students are required to tackle. Research papers address a topic chosen by the student or the instructor. Organization is key in developing an effective research paper. Each section of your paper should build on other sections and support the main argument of the paper.

As an anthropology student you’ll likely be required to write book reviews and ethnographic analyses. Book reviews are not the same thing as book reports. Book reviews are critical essays that evaluate the effectiveness of the author in achieving their intended goal in writing the book.

Ethnographic analyses are write ups where the student connects ethnographic data they’ve collected via research to other scholarly literature on related topics.

Writing Conventions and Tips

Below we’ll explore conventions of writing in anthropology as well as tips to improve your writing style and effectiveness as a student and aspiring anthropologist.

  • Use of first-person “I”
    While not as common in other forms of writing, the use of the first-person “I” is often acceptable when writing anthropology papers. The use of the first-person “I” allows the writer to make himself or herself more visible to the reader. However, use the first-person “I” judiciously. The first-person “I” is most commonly used in the development of ethnographic analyses.
  • Verb Tense
    There is no set rule for which verb tense you should use in anthropologic writing. The most important thing is that you remain consistent. You also want to avoid creating a false sense of authority through using the present tense. While it is appropriate to use the present tense to indicate an ongoing anthropological feature, you just need to be careful that you don’t not employ the present tense in a way that might suggest a false sense of authority.
  • Active vs. passive voice
    It’s best to write using the active voice. However, many good anthropological papers include both active and passive voices. The big benefit of writing using the active voice is that it positions the subject of your paper front and center – which is what you want.
  • Style recommendations
    Anthropologic writing should be beautiful. It should be elegant and evoke emotion in the reader. At the same time it must be clear. Effective anthropological papers include a combination of both complex evocative sentences along and shorter direct sentences. Ethnographic analyses in particular should be rich and full of vivid description.
  • Avoid Generalizations
    An seasoned anthropologist (or anthropology student) should recognize that cultural contexts and perspectives vary across the world. They also vary across time. The world is ever changing and cultures adapt and mold to their environment. It’s okay to identify cultural trends, themes and ideas, but be sure to avoid generalizations and “cultural relativism”. Instead of stating “Culture A is always…,” you might say “Culture A is frequently observed to…”
  • Avoid “Othering”
    Scholars outside the field of anthropology have accused those within the discipline of advertently and inadvertently placing classifications on people and cultures that establish a moral hierarchy (superior/inferior) on human diversity. This is referred to as “othering”, or the “us” vs “them” mentality. Anthropology students should embrace human diversity and it’s many cultural and moral perspectives. They should avoid “othering” in all its forms.
  • It’s not about the “native”.
    It is true the discipline of anthropology got its start by studying “exotic” or “native” cultures (i.e. cultures different from ‘our’ own). However, the discipline of anthropology today is no longer the study of the “unique”, “exotic”, “primitive”, or “dying” cultures of the world. These terms are no longer relevant, or appropriate, within the study of anthropology. Anthropology attempts to study ALL world cultures and recognizes that cultural diversity and continuity exist across the globe. Any language that suggests a moral hierarchy, marginalizes, or suggests “othering” should be avoided in anthropological writing.
  • Avoid “Proving”
    Anthropology is about exploring and embracing human diversity. It is not about judging, condemning, or cataloguing it. Your writing should be aimed at arguing your views, and your thesis, with the end goal of contributing to a larger framework of understanding within the discipline and acceptance outside the field. As you conduct research to produce anthropological knowledge to support your writing, make sure the thesis you develop, and arguments you craft, are aimed at contributing to a comparative anthropological framework. Never, attempt to “prove” your views, or your thesis. Trying to prove, suggests that anthropology, and the cultures it examines, are static, absolute, and never changing.

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