Anthropology Dissertation Proposal


 On Writing Proposals

A proposal should set out what you want to do, how you hope to do it, and why it’s worth doing. It should also make clear that you have done the necessary preliminary research (literature review, understanding of the topic, and, where relevant, the history of your particular geographical area) to embark on a successful independent research project. Thus, consider how your project builds on and contributes to anthropological knowledge in your chosen area. Your proposal should also include an estimation of expenses, in time and money. This will allow you to compete for departmental funding, and also demonstrate that you have thought through the practicality and feasibility of your project plan.    

Anthropologists often deviate from what we initially plan to do. Fieldwork is an interactive process that depends on other people and is largely aimed at understanding what is important to others. So, a proposal is read only in part as a statement of what you will do; in part it is read as evidence of how well you can formulate a problem, think of ways to investigate it, and link it to other issues.

Your proposal should include:

0. Title

1. Introduction

In one paragraph, explain what do you want to do, how, and why. Why does this research matter?

2. Background

A. Research Location(s): Identify the research site and describe the historical and contemporary factors relating to this site that are relevant to your research. What will your research add to our knowledge of this part of the world?

B. Literature Review: What have others (especially anthropologists!) written about your topic and/or area? Given what has already been written on the topic, why is your research important? What will it contribute to our knowledge, within the discipline of anthropology or within another field of scholarly interest? Are there debates in the literature to which your research will contribute? Does your research test out old assumptions and/or take ideas in a new direction? Discuss comparable studies and explain how your research is similar to or different from them. If there is limited work in your chosen area, consider whether there are similar processes going on in other parts of the world. How will your research scale up from a local site/problem to broader analytical or theoretical questions or problems? In short, explain how your research will expand on existing anthropological ideas and how it promises to advance our understanding of the world or a particular problematic. This is also the place to state the main research questions guiding your work.

3. Methods

A. What methods will you use? To get what sort of information? How will your methodology produce information that you can link into an argument or description? Will your methods provide cross-checks on one another, or multiple ways to understand your research site or topic? If your methods are a signal improvement on existing ones in the field, offering the promise of more precise, more reliable, more abundant or more complete results, say so, and say why.

B. Analysis: Be sure you indicate not only what you want to find out and how you will go about it, but also how you plan to make sense of what you discover. How are you going to organize the material you learn? What tools will you use to analyze the information gathered in participant observation, or interview (for example)? Also, make sure to explain how you will gather the contextual information (background, regional history, other necessary social or political context) needed to support the more specific argument you hope to make.

4. Timetable and budget

Include key dates and all estimated expenses, as well as a budget for what you want the department to support.

5. Results

What kind of results do you expect from your research? If all goes well, what do you think your research will contribute? What kind of ethnography do you plan to produce: a life history, a problem-oriented ethnography, a comparative survey, a personal narrative, etc.? How is the style of the ethnography important for the work you hope to do?

6. Preliminary Bibliography

Make sure to provide a thorough list of sources you have consulted for your project: this will demonstrate that you have undertaken the necessary preparation for a project of this scale and magnitude.

Other guides to writing research proposals that might be helpful to explore:

* Adam  Pzreworski and Salomon, Frank, On the Art of Writing Proposals (Social Science Research Council, 1995 rev., 1988). download here

* Sydel Silverman, “Writing Grant Proposals for Anthropological Research” for Wenner-Gren available here

* Michael Watts, "The Holy Grail: In Pursuit of the Dissertation Proposal" at UC Berkeley available here



Many doctoral students in anthropology may not have access to models of what a fundable dissertation proposal looks like. This page provides examples of successful proposals, with an emphasis on grants for dissertation research.

The impetus for making these proposal available was my seminar in research design. But I'd like the list to grow and to become a resource for students in anthropology everywhere. If you or your students are willing to share funded proposals -- to NSF, Wenner-Gren, SSRC, Fulbright, or other agencies -- please consider sending them to me, and I will make them available here. Contributions from all subfields of anthropology are welcome.

NSF Dissertation Improvement Grants

Cultural Anthropology Program

Casagrande, David G. Cognitive prototypes in Tzeltal Maya medicinal plant selection (Brent Berlin, PI) .

Gravlee, Clarence C. Skin color, culture, and blood pressure in southeastern Puerto Rico (H. Russell Bernard, PI).

Negron, Rosalyn. Ethnic identity switching among Latinos in Queens, NY (H. Russell Bernard, PI).

St. Jacques, Ermitte. The implications of economic and social mobility for transnational West African migrants in Spain (Maxine L. Margolis, PI).

Wutich, Amber. The effects of water scarcity on reciprocity and sociability in Bolivia (H. Russell Bernard, PI).

NSF Senior Research Grants

Dressler, William W. Culture and individual adaptation. (NSF Cultural Anthropology Program)

McCarty, Christopher. Development Of A Social Network Measure Of Acculturation And Its Application To Immigrant Populations In South Florida And Northeastern Spain (NSF Cultural Anthropology Program).


Kennedy, David P. Culture change, gender, and fertility decline in Honduras.

Wenner-Gren Foundation

Dennison, Jean. Reforming a Nation: Citizenship, Government and the Osage People.

Social Science Research Council

Coming soon..



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last modified 12.07.05


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