Project Ideas for College-Level Anthropology Classes
written by: Austin Kaye-Smith•edited by: Ronda Bowen•updated: 5/31/2011
From linguistics to archaeology, anthropology can be an extensive and varied discipline. The four fields of anthropology give students a holistic view of humanity, although most classes focus on one branch at a time. Get a pen and pencil ready because we're going to go over some great project ideas!
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College Projects and Anthropology
Because of its "hands-on" approach to learning things from an emic perspective, many fields within anthropology champion student projects. College students have long been aware of the social sciences and their tendency to organize group work in favor of just "teaching the test"; psychology, anthropology, political science, and sociology cannot be learned simply by reading from a textbook.
Yet, undoubtably, not everyone in college loves to do projects, let alone those which involve other people. For many students, too many chefs spoil the pot. Anthropology isn't for everybody, but a significant number of colleges and universities require students to take a course or two in the discipline's numerous sub-fields. Let's take a look at what Anthropology projects can both astound your professor and earn that coveted "A" for the class.
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The Four-Fields Approach
Modern Anthropology in the United States and United Kingdom, as well as in much of the Western World, has been influenced by the "Four Field Approach". This approach, originally popularized by Franz Boas (the "Father of American/Modern Anthropology"), focuses on four distinct sub-fields within the larger discipline of anthropology: the cultural, physical, linguistic, and archaeological studies.
Chances are, unless you are taking introductory courses or ones focused on a dissertation/thesis, your Anthropology class(es) fits into one of these four afformentioned fields. For example, "Language Thought and Culture" (an introductory linguistic course) would fit neatly into its respective field. "Human Origins" would be a physical anthropology course, "The Archaeology of Mesoamerica" would be an archaeological one, and "Medical Anthropology" would be a cultural anthropology course.
Physical anthropology courses (also known as "biological anthropology" classes) focus on the development, status, and prospects of the human species with respect to its physical structure. Biological anthropology, which is sometimes differentiated from the larger field of phyisical anthropology, also seeks to analyze human genetics and biology from an interdisciplinary perspective. Cultural anthropology, the other large pillar of the discipline, studies cultural differences and similarities through scientific fieldwork. Social anthropology, often combined with cultural anthropology but seeking to gain status as the "fifth field of anthropology", studies the interactions between and inside of social groups. Social anthropologists examine political, economic, and cultural institutions and how they interact with one another to provide the larger structure of society. Archaeologists, holding some similarities with physicial anthropologists, study human society through its material remains. Linguistic anthropologists, often thought of as holding less importance than the physical, cultural, and archaeological sub-fields, explore the vast array of human communication and how it influences society.
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Ideas for Physical ('Biological") Anthropology
The famous physical anthropology has a variety of topics to explore. Primatology, human biology, and neuroanthropology are just some of the studies within the larger field of biological anthropology. Here are some key concepts and ideas to explore for human biology, a interdiscipline that takes from a variety of different scientific studies:
The evolution of the human immune system and its responses to external stimuli
How do human biological systems respond to external pressures both social and ecological?
Does one-size really fit all when it comes to human nutrition and "food pyramids"?
Primatology is the study of primates, with special regard towards their relation with Homo sapiens. Primatology doesn't always pay special attention towards humans, but it's generally understood that this discipline fits more within anthropology than it does within zoology. Here are some great ideas to springboard off of for a college class project in anthropology, focusing on primates:
What are some strikingly similar human and non-human primate responses to stressors?
General trends concerning olfaction (the sense of smell) and primate biology
Prosimian scent-rubbing and its social consequences
Primate communication with respect to New World Monkeys
A lesser-known branch of biological anthropology, molecular anthropology understands the human world through that of bioevolutionary connections between modern and ancient populations. Neuroanthropology, like its sister sub-field, examines the biological underpinnings of the human brain. Take note of some of these ideas for college class projects on molecular and neuroanthropology:
How does migration affect the dispersal of human genes?
What are the similarities between the Great Apes (humans, chimpanzees, gorillas, etc.) with regards to DNA?
Correlations between genetic development and cultural expansion
The hominid brain, its emotional sympathy, empathy, and general ability to comprehend
Of course, there are always those physical anthropology disciplines related to bones, morphology, and fossils. Upper-division human osteology, paleoanthropology, and forensic anthropology courses will be looking for topics not too dissimilar from these:
How are bones formed, regenerated, and maintained in the human body?
The first fossil evidence of human hunting and fire-making
How long can human remains be postively identified (using modern technology)?
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Ideas for Linguistic Anthropology
The study of human language is absolutely essential to anthropology, as it provides a framework for understanding one of the most unique features of humanity. Linguistic professors often focus on subtle ideas, propaganda, enthno-centrism, inferences, bias, and social status embedded within human speech. Everything from political rhetoric to that really cool Super Bowl commercial is fair game in linguistic anthropology. Some great topics to explore for a project in linguistic anthropology include:
The last presidential election: campaign commercials and their subtle inferences
Words of neutral meaning with negative connotations
Linguistic supremacism and neoliberalism (the globalization of free-markets and corporate domination)
Identity and language: Tools of individuality, conformity, and culture
The communication of ideologues versus those of little/no prejudice
Male and female communication in the modern, Western world
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Ideas for Cultural Anthropology
Cultural anthropology encompasses two styles of data collection: those that are "etic" and others which are "emic". Etic data is collected from a neutral observer's point-of-view. Studies which frequently cite etic data (e.g. "The culture practices both cat and dog eating") tend to favor the idea of cultural anthropology being better served as a methodical discipline rather than one of ancedotal evidence. In contrast, emic data collection relies on in-depth observation from an "insider's point-of-view" to compare with those already presupposed by the outsider culture. Emic data (e.g. "The culture practices both cat and dog eating because it sees this as a rite-of-passage and spiritual healing for its juvenille members") favors the idea of cultural anthropology becoming a discipline dominated by accurate insider views rather than outsider prejudices. Cultural anthropology uses both emic and etic data to come to conclusions of projects and field studies. Below are some great college class project ideas in Anthropology that use both these approaches in regards to culture:
Sexual infidelity and its implications in societies both modern and non-Western
The decoration of one's self: How other cultures see clothing
Do cultures really favor one skin color over another when it comes to socioeconomic status?
How war is shaped by cultural assumptions, ideals, and imperialism
Are there any universal attributes when it comes to human culture?
Non-human primate culture through the eyes of prosimians, Old World Monkeys, New Worlds Monkeys, the Lesser Apes, and the Great Apes
Cultural tolerance of individuality and non-conformity across the world
Western attitudes towards multi-culturalism in a global world
Social anthropology, another field of anthropology that is vying for "fifth field" status, is all about society and how it affects humanity. It is distinct from cultural anthropology in that it is not directly concerned with variation between cultures, but rather how they interact with one another. Some great ideas for social anthropology projects in college might include:
Social stratification in the devloped world and how it relates to cultural ideals
Liberalism and conservatism: What makes societies lean more towards the right or left?
The aftermath of the U.S.S.R. on eastern European and middle eastern societies
Why do we see an increasing accumulation of disproportionate wealth in the Western world?
The social position of animals in different societies and cultures
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Ideas for Archaeology
Archaeology projects are usually in-depth and specific to certain dig sites. That being said, the discipline is not averse to having its own favorite topics of discourse. Try to adapt the following ideas to your specific situation to create a truly stunning project:
What nutritional constructs can we infer from [specific society]'s food-related remains?
The religious ideals that can be hypothesized by examining the society's cultural remains
Lifespan in respect to a specific dig site (records, tools, etc.)
How and where did social learning take place at this dig site?
Comparisons of social structures between a dig site and nearby findings/dig sites
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Anthropology is a large discipline with countless approaches to it. The rather large amount of sub-fields within Anthropology leads to an infinite amount of topics that can be discussed culturally, biologically, archaeologically, and linguistically. Take note of some of the above ideas, with respect to the correct discipline, and be sure to read up on historical figures within your sub-field.
Franz Boas, for example, and his Boasian anthropologists were critical figures in the development of the four modern fields of anthropology. The Leakey Family is a well-known group of related individuals (prominently Mr. Louis Leakey) who were pioneers of evolutionary thought in physical anthropology. The family's "The Leakey Foundation" serves as the United States' foremost institution funding human origin research today. The Yerkes family, E. B. Tylor, and Bronislaw Malinowski are some other prominent anthropologists of note.
In the end, the study of anthropology is highly empirical, relying on both observation and experimentation to draw conclusions about the most complex animal on the face of the Earth. It takes effort to get a holistic perspect on humanity, as is required for college class projects in anthropology. With proper research, forethought, and critical examination, your anthropology project can be the best thing your professor has seen in a long time.