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Department of Social Anthropology


Jonathan Taee - Mongar Dzong Tshechu Dancers, Bhutan

Planning your Dissertation


On this page:

About the Dissertation

Research Ethics Approval

Dissertation Deadlines

Oral Examination


About the Dissertation

The dissertation is an exercise in advanced independent study, complementary to the work students do in achieving in-depth knowledge of the distinctive methods and perspectives of social anthropology through seminars, supervision work and exam preparation. The dissertation is therefore intended to provide students with an experience of applying the methods and perspectives that are important in the work of anthropologists to an independently conceived study project. The dissertation may include a component of on-site participant-observation, so long as this is carefully planned so as to take into consideration all relevant issues of risk and ethical practice in our field, or it can be largely or wholly library-based. It may be a free-standing project, or it can be a vehicle for the working out of plans for a future research project such as a PhD.

The primary aim of a dissertation should be the theoretical analysis of ethnographic material. This might include an element of observations amassed by the student himself/herself in a suitable context for such independent study, or it can be an attempt at a novel synthesis of ethnographic material, and/or an attempt to rethink or reinterpret existing material, such as the published ethnographic observations of anthropologists. Students will be expected to produce a coherent anthropological argument based on a secure knowledge of a set of substantive materials, and to place their project's findings and argument within the existing literature on the subject.

Students may expect to receive guidance from their supervisors on the planning and writing of their dissertations, and should discuss well in advance any possible plans to conduct on-site work as a basis for their project as an analytical exercise. The Department also provides skills teaching relevant to the planning and writing of the dissertation.

The dissertation needs careful planning with your supervisor. As a rough guide, we suggest the following timetable:

  • After the first four weeks of the Michaelmas term, you should begin to choose a subject area and topic in consultation with your supervisor.
  • During the Christmas vacation, you should try to do the bulk of the necessary reading, and begin a rough outline of the questions you hope to address and how.
  • You should discuss the subject and title of your dissertation with your supervisor at the beginning of the Lent term. You must submit via Moodle Department Form MP14 - Dissertation Title and Submission Date by the third week of the Lent term (specific date is on your Course Diary) for approval by the Degree Committee. At the same time, you must formally register for the two written examination papers you intend to sit. The title of your dissertation will be passed to the Degree Committee for approval.
  • The Department offers all MPhil students a week-long course on fieldwork methods during Michaelmas Term. 

The Haddon Library holds copies of dissertations produced by past graduate students and also has an online list of these dissertations.

MPhil students in the Department needing help with the costs associated with their dissertation, including fieldwork costs during vacations, should apply to the Dissertation Expenses Grant.



Research Ethics and Integrity Approval

The MPhil Committee deals with ethical issues that arise for MPhil students. With the Departmental Committee, it has final responsibility for ethics clearance at the Department level.  For MPhil in Social Anthropology matters please contact Professor Yael Navaro (

The University of Cambridge Research Integrity website provides extensive ethics and integrity guidelines to support staff and students. The Association of Social Anthropologists also provides extensive ASA ethics guidelines. Please consult these carefully while planning your research and discussing it with your supervisor. Also see ESRC framework for research ethics and AAA ethical guidelines.  

As the statement from the ASA Chair usefully points out, the guidelines are not intended to provide ready-made answers or to absolve researchers from ethical responsibilities, but should be a starting point for a concrete reflection on the specific ethical issues which may have to be borne in mind in the case of your specific research:  

“Codes of practice and guidelines are of necessity succinct documents, couched in abstract and general terms. They serve as a baseline for starting to think about ethical issues, but cannot of their nature encompass the complexities of concrete situations and the dilemmas of choice and positioning that anthropologists routinely face as they navigate through a variety of intersecting fields of power and responsibility and start to consider how their own work both reflects and affects power relations. If ethics is seen simply as a question of avoiding a lawsuit and our codes are simply a list of restrictions on conduct designed to protect us from interference, our ethical purpose will simply be a matter of self-serving professional interest.” (Statement from the Chair, ASA) 

Researchers should also be aware of data protection issues that arise as a result of conducting research. In particular, you should keep in mind that when using cloud-based storage, or programmes such as Evernote, data will be crossing international borders even if your research does not. This means you should be aware of any issues raised concerning not only the security of your own research data, but also the legal issues surrounding data protection of all personal data. Further information on data protection can be found at the following places:
The University of Cambridge Staff and Student Information
Research data Q&A from Jisc Legal
SOAS information on personal data in research which covers some issues of particular interest to anthropologists in more depth.

If, having read these guidelines, you have any questions or would like any advice relating to research ethics, please consult the Department’s research ethics officer.  


Dissertation deadlines

There are two dates when MPhil dissertation may be submitted: the Division of Easter Term (specific date is in your Course Diary) and the last Friday in August. Several considerations concerning dissertation deadlines may affect how and when you plan to write and submit your dissertation.

Lectures and seminars end at the division of the Easter term, leaving about two weeks for revision before the examinations, which begin around the end of May. If you submit your dissertation by the division of the Easter term, it can be read and marked at the same time as your exams. In that case, you will know your result soon after the middle of June. You may need to know your results early in the summer because you are applying for grants or for further courses which have early deadlines and which require a firm MPhil result before the application can be judged. If this is likely to be the case, you should plan to complete your dissertation by the early date.

Even if you choose to submit your dissertation at the later date, you will still need to plan it well in advance during the Lent and Easter terms while your supervisor is still around. To ensure that the content and approach of your dissertation will be acceptable, you must also submit a (one page) synopsis of your intended dissertation, which summarises its theme, argument and structure.  This should be uploaded to your Moodle Course by the division of the Easter term (specific date is in your Course Diary). The Department cannot guarantee any supervision after the end of the Easter term.

Dissertations that are submitted after the first deadline will not normally be examined until just before the beginning of the following Michaelmas term, in late September, which means that you will not know your results until early October.

Further details are given on the Dissertation Submission page of the website.


Oral Examination

An oral examination or viva on your dissertation and any other aspect of assessment will not be held automatically, but the Department reserves the right to call you for one. This might be because there are particular questions that we wish to follow up, because there is a danger of your failing, or because we wish to decide about a borderline between a pass and a high pass mark.

The aim of the oral examination is to allow you to expand on, defend or explain some aspect of your assessed work. However, this raises a possible problem of timing. Those who submit a dissertation before the division of the Easter term would, if necessary, be called for an oral during the period of written examinations.

Dissertations submitted after the division of the Easter term will not be examined until the following September. If a candidate were asked to come to an oral at that point, it would be held as early as feasible in middle to late September or early in the new Michaelmas term. Some candidates may find it difficult to remain in or return to Cambridge for this purpose; an online interview may be arranged if necessary.