Your major class project for this semester will be a paper on some aspect of modern material culture; as we define the subject in class, that could include a vast range of things from the past few hundred years until right now.  The paper should focus on some material object, class of objects, or material place using concepts developed in class or examined in the readings.  You can choose basically anything for your focus, but the paper must satisfy several basic requirements.

1. I REQUIRE that you turn in a proposal for your term paper by February 22nd. Your proposal MUST include five sources that are not limited to websites, and all websites must include an operating URL.  I will provide comments and, if possible, leads on resources that you should include in your paper.  I will reject papers whose topic, format, or preparation do not strictly address the requirements outlined here, but rejected proposals will not count against your grade.  However, I will automatically deduct a letter grade off the final grade for any paper for which I do not receive a proposal, regardless of how good your final product may be, so do not be tempted to skip submitting a proposal.
The well-appointed fallout sheter 2. Your paper must have an abstract.  In social scientific literature, abstracts summarize the basic questions, methods, relevance, and conclusions of a research paper.  You should prepare a descriptive abstract, a paragraph at the outset of the paper that briefly summarizes:  one, the subject of the paper, the question you are asking about that subject, and what you are asking about this subject (e.g., "This paper will analyze Planet of the Apes toys and examine how these toys reflect racial symbolism in the late-1960's and early 1970's"); two, why this research topic is anthropologically significant (e.g., using the Apes example, you would then say why the toys provide a distinctive insight into how race is constructed in myriad mostly unrecognized forms); three, your research methods (e.g., "I examined Planet of the Apes collectors' literature online, consulted books on the toys and the movie itself, and surveyed supporting academic literature on race and racism"); and, three, a hint to your conclusion(s) that foreshadows what your study will focus on, your basic take on the subject, and the implications.  The abstract should be less than 100 words.  Many writers prepare their abstract last, when they've actually written the paper and can summarize all the essential information in their paper, so don't feel this must be done at the outset when you are confronting a blank page and still trying to figure out what you have to say.  

3. You should be able to state how your topic is properly conceived of as an element of modern material culture; i.e., it must conform to the course definition of material culture as the products and precedents of human social behavior, and it must stay within the general boundaries of our perception of the "modern." This includes a whole lot of possibilities, but it is not so broad that ANY subject will be suitable for the term paper.  Given the breadth of subjects that can be considered part of material culture, it is not difficult to find a topic, but you should be sure to find a topic that can be examined within 10-15 pages and will not require a dissertation-length analysis.  Graduate students' papers should be at least 20 pages in length.

Your selection of an appropriate type of material culture and a good research question should be guided by factors including:

A. how much there actually is to be said about the subject (e.g., do you have sufficient data?; is it something in which you think people are interested?; etc);

B. the presence of supporting and/or comparative analysis (i.e., has someone else already written something on this subject?--it isn't essential that someone has already done some research on your topic, but it certainly will help you, and there has been useful research done on almost every conceivable subject);

C. do you have a basic method for the analysis?  That is, do you know how you'll analyze the material culture and relate it to your research questions?  Don't just rely on your gut instincts (e.g., "Barbie's are terrible for body image" or conversely "Barbie's obviously show we girls can do anything"):  intuition is a great place to begin, BUT intuition alone will not produce any new insight and may be misguided anyway; and

D. perhaps most importantly, are you interested in this subject?  If you think the subject is boring to begin with, your paper will be.  Find something you find interesting and ask yourself what makes that subject interesting, why you think that thing is interesting, and how would you analyze it as a material artifact. If you have some basic insights into those questions, you'll find writing the paper will be entertaining.

4. Your paper must have a research question. That is, just waxing on about the virtues of snow globes, probing the collectors' histories of Barbies, contemplating your personal collection of match books, or discussing your experiences with baseball card collectors does not address a tangible research question, even though any of those things could indeed be elements of a solid paper.  You should have a central question (summarized in the paper's abstract) that clearly states why you are studying this particular data and research question; i.e., why should an anthropologist care about this data or this question?  A research question should clearly state: what do you want to know?; and why do you want to investigate this problem or issue?  It should also clearly state how you will go about examining this question (i.e., your methodology): e.g., you went to Toys-R-Us and made a record of every G.I. Joe item being sold in the store, then you contacted five collectors, you surveyed five or ten collector's handbooks, you examined a series of toy catalogs from 1959-1967, and so on.  Research questions can revolve around marketing, racism, consumer space, gender, ethnicity, class, and myriad other anthropological variables that impact cultural experience.

This means that if you decide to do your paper on Playstation 3, then you can't just describe the technological innovations of Playstation or snicker over the wild frenzy of parents in search of the elusive toy.  What you need to make this a term paper is some sociocultural question that is reflected in Playstation and the frenzied consumer desire for them.  This could include things like the place of video games in contemporary childrens' lives and material assemblages; efforts of collectors, Sony, media, and dealers to inflate the use and exchange values of Playstation; the status battles waged between parents at Christmas to provide superior gifts; or bourgeois children's technological sophistication.  A research question can aim to probe quite broad elements of social identity using seemingly innocuous material culture: for instance, you could ask questions about gender and sexuality dynamics in contemporary society using Xena Warrior Princess figures; you could study class structure in Carmel studying SUV's in a condo parking lot; or you could do something like the Shanks and Tilley study, which examines state-based consumption ideologies using beer cans.  Don't be afraid to be ambitious and creative.

5. Your paper must have a conclusion that summarizes what you have found out or concluded. It must clearly restate what you set out to examine or focus upon, what you found out in the course of research (which can include things you did not expect as well as what you had already intuitively believed), and the anthropological relevance of the subject. You can and should admit if you believe you would need more research to sufficiently tackle some elements of the subject, thereby suggesting directions for subsequent research.

6. A bibliography is absolutely required. It must include every single source you consulted, from academic treatises, to background sources, to mint-on-card toys, to the web, to your neighbor's reminiscences. Anything that does not come directly out of your head MUST have a cited source. You should consult a wide range of resources including things you do not normally cite in academic papers, such as mass media texts, media, and web discussion groups, but you still MUST use academic research as well that either directly examines your topic or provides you theoretical ideas that you subsequently use in your research paper.  Use of appropriate course readings is strongly suggested but not required.  The bibliography must be in a consistent format--I should be able to locate any of your sources--, and specific literature citations must be cited in the body of the paper (examples of such citations are included in this handout). I prefer you use the American Anthropological Association's style guide. I do expect your bibliography to include AT THE MINIMUM 15 CITED SOURCES, and I will consider the breadth and quantity of resources used in your research when the paper is graded: a couple of citations from Newsweek or five papers from the same book will not be sufficient. Papers without citation will not pass.

You are likely to use some internet research sources and certainly should take advantage of the rich range of things now available online.  Nevertheless,  web pages are flooded with completely unreliable information that should be viewed warily, so use them cautiously and thoughtfully.

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Facts of life

The paper is due April 18th. The paper can be turned in any time before that point. I cannot accept late papers--please don't procrastinate.

The paper must be at least ten double-spaced pages in length.  You cannot use a font larger than 12-pitch, and all margins should be 1".  Your paper MUST be stapled:  please don't turn in papers in vinyl binders (which look cool but separate instantly) or other folders, and please do not turn in loose papers.  I will penalize papers that have insufficient references, and I will deduct points for grammar and spelling errors:  please proof read your work, or feel free to bring me a draft and I will proof read it for you.  Do not use gender-exclusive language (e.g., universal "Man," or "he" as a reference to unspecified gender).

Finding a subject

You can analyze most any piece of contemporary or early modern material culture. You can choose an assemblage of comparable objects (e.g., the doll aisle at Toys-R Us, monuments at a battlefield, etc), a single object (e.g., the Soldiers and Sailors Monument), or a material space (e.g., a Children's Museum gallery).  You'll be required to do some close descriptive analysis of your subject--i.e., you'll need to provide physical descriptions such as size, physical composition of the object, description of the space, stylistic description, or whatever describes the objects or space you've selected to study. You will almost certainly need to provide some history of your subject--for instance, address who made your subject (e.g., who produces G.I. Joe figures), when was it made (e.g., how long have G.I. Joes been manufactured), and what is the context of its use today (i.e., who buys G.I. Joes and why).


The paper must use some outside references that are cited in a standard style guide.  I expect you to use the American Anthropological Association's style guide.  The citations should include other research on the same subject, references that directly examine your data and subject, and course readings.  They can be journal articles, books, or newspaper articles that analyze the very same things you are analyzing, or they can be texts that develop ideas or principles that you borrow or adapt--for instance, if you choose to study a museum exhibit, you would find an amazing volume of research on how other people have conducted such analyses on other exhibits and museums, and you would be able to cite some of that research to show how such studies are conducted and what at least some other researchers focused upon.  Be creative about your resources and dig for original things to synthesize: take advantage of stuff like journal articles, Dissertation Abstracts, interviews, conference papers, and edited volumes that you may not typically use in standard course papers.  You'll be surprised at what scholars have actually examined: things like Star Wars figures and other minutia are often contained in out-of-the-way journals or edited collections.  You also will find an amazing amount of quite pertinent stuff on the Web, with talk groups and quite professional and thorough sites on every form of modern material culture imaginable. 

References are sources from which you quote directly or borrow ideas, even if you adapt their ideas to your own ends: if an idea doesn't spring entirely from your head, it needs to be referenced.  References should be noted in two places in your text: in the body of the text and at the conclusion in a bibliography.  Please do not use end notes or footnotes.  Within the body of your paper, you can quote directly from another author, placing their ideas verbatim within quotation marks. At the end of the quote you must cite the source--for example,

In his autobiography, John Luc-Picard acknowledged that "The federation's quest was utterly colonial because we sought new markets in which we could install the Home Shopping Network" (Picard 1999:116).

Or you can paraphrase--for example,

Picard was among the few Starfleet officers to admit that the Federation was affiliated with the Home Shopping Network (Picard 1999:116).

Within the body of the paper, each time you directly cite or paraphrase another author, you should cite the author's name, date of publication, and page number in parenthesis.  In the above example, the quote or the material being paraphrased is referenced at the end of the sentence, which establishes that the idea/quote came from page 116 from a volume by Picard published in 1999.


Last updated January 22, 2016