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Department of Social Anthropology


The option of writing a dissertation is open to all Part IIB candidates. The dissertation counts towards the final degree as an alternative to the optional paper.

Many students find writing a dissertation to be one of the most challenging and enjoyable parts of their course.  It allows them to explore issues more widely or deeply than is possible within the supervision essay format and many excellent dissertations have been produced in the Department. For those planning to continue at postgraduate level, it also gives a sense of research possibilities.

On this page:



Research Ethics and Integrity


Past Dissertation 



  1. At the start of your IIA year you should consider whether or not you wish to offer a dissertation in your final year. If you decide to go ahead, you will need as soon as possible to discuss it with your Director of Studies. You will need to have some idea as to a possible subject and source of data, but finalisation of the topic and how it should be tackled is best left for discussion with whoever is appointed by your Director of Studies to be the supervisor. During the initial discussion a possible supervisor may be suggested and the next stage – ideally still early within the Part IIA year – will be to talk the matter through with the supervisor. The idea is to work out a possible topic and begin preliminary reading during the second year. A key element to writing a good dissertation is posing a question to which the thesis is an answer. You should also attend the compulsory Part IIA dissertation workshops (in Lent and Easter terms of your IIA year). Most people gather the basic data for their dissertation and write it up in a preliminary form during the second year long vacation. We require students to complete FORM1 Proposal to Offer a SAN Dissertation form very early in Easter term of their IIA year. Deadline to submit the form is Friday 3 May 2024.
  2. The date to submit FORM2 Title of Dissertation is on Friday 20 October 2023
  3. Any changes of title after that date must be submitted on the appropriate form FORM3 Change to a Dissertation Title Friday 26 January 2024. Deadlines are noted on the Part IIB Dissertation Moodle Course.
  4. The Head of Department will formally approve your title by the Division of the Lent term in your final year. After the title has been approved, no change may be made without further approval from the Head of Department.
  5. The dissertation must be uploaded to the Assignment section of the Social Anthropology Dissertation Moodle Course not later than noon on 3 May 2024.

    The dissertation should be accompanied by a cover sheet containing the following: (a) a brief synopsis of the contents; (b) your blind grade numbers (as issued by the exams office); (c) a declaration of the word count of the dissertation (see Dissertation Style Guide for wording and the Dissertation Moodle Course resources section for a Template Cover Sheet). 

    You will be asked to sign an electronic declaration statement that your dissertation is your own original work and that it does not contain material that has already been used to any substantial extent for a comparable purpose. 

    Following the dissertation submission, one or two of the examiners will hold a short oral examination (viva) with you on its scope and content and on background knowledge relevant to the topic.

A reminder of key points and deadlines:

  • Be thinking about your plans for a dissertation during your Part IIA year
  • Topic: should not duplicate material on which you will be examined
  • Length: 10,000 words excluding footnotes, appendices, and bibliography
  • Deadline for FORM2 Title of Dissertation is on Friday 20 October 2023
  • Final deadline for revised titles submitted on the FORM3 Change to a Dissertation Title is on Friday 26 January 2024
  • Deadline for submission of dissertation is noon on 3 May 2024
  • HSPS have a policy of mandatory screening of all assessed work. The policy on Plagiarism can be read here.
  • Viva Voce Examinations: June 2024

All Social Anthropology IIB Dissertations conclude with a Viva Voce examination. This is between 15 and 20 minutes long. In general, the viva is an opportunity to confirm your conclusions and to speak meaningfully about your anthropological research and writing. It is unusual for the viva to reduce a student's mark - far more likely is that a student clarifies any matters that may have puzzled the assessors or indeed does so well in the viva as to invite the assessors to raise their mark.

The Dissertation Viva will be conducted by two assessors of your Dissertation, so you should come in expecting to have an interesting conversation about your Dissertation and your fieldwork. The vivas will be held in the Meyer Fortes room. Whilst it is a formal event, and may at first seem intimidating, most students greatly enjoy the opportunity to speak about their thesis and the ideas therein to an anthropologist who has read and marked it.

The only real preparation you need to do before your viva is to read through your dissertation carefully so as to remind yourself of what you wrote. You will be invited to start off by saying a few words (no more than 5 minutes) about the project itself and why it interested you, what choices you had to make, what you found most interesting or surprising about the research and whether you think there are any weaknesses or anything you would now change. The brief is fairly open-ended and intended as a way to open up the conversation in the viva. At the very least, this should constitute great interview practice for the future!

Please note: The deadline for submission of Part IIB dissertations is strict and final. If you anticipate any problem in submitting your Part II dissertation on time you must consult your supervisor, Director of Studies and College Tutor immediately. Extensions will only be granted under exceptional circumstances. Work submitted late and without certification will be penalised. The examiners will deduct marks from dissertations in the event they are submitted late without prior Departmental agreement.

Penalties For Late Submission:

  • 1 point per hour or part thereof – up to 3 points (1 point per the first hour, another point for the second hour, and a third point for any further delay up to 12 noon the next day) 
  • Next 10 days or part thereof – 3 points per day 
  • Any work submitted after 10 days is marked 0 
  • Electronic submission is mandatory 
  • Submission times are standardised at 12pm (BST) on the due date, with daily penalties applied every 24 hours from the due time.
  • Hand-in times are standardised at 12pm (noon) on the due date, with daily penalties applied every 24 hours from the due time.


The general topic of the dissertation may be on any suitable subject within Social Anthropology provided that its content does not overlap with that presented in any paper being offered for examination. In other words it should address arguments and materials in addition to those drawn on for the written examinations. You will need to think about collecting the materials, sorting them and addressing arguments through them as a piece of independent research.

The research may be library-based or may include an element of survey- or ‘field’-work. The latter two kinds of project depend on the student’s initiative; the Department of Social Anthropology does not offer training in field research methods at this level. Where students have the opportunity to bring in ‘field’ experiences, they are encouraged to draw on them, as on any other resource, but there is no preference for a particular research approach. A library-based dissertation is given equal weight to a project-based one.

Length and format: The word limit is 10,000 words excluding footnotes, abstracts/synopsis, contents page, appendices, acknowledgements, glossary or bibliography. NB Students should not include important information in footnotes that could be included in the body of the text, as examiners are not obliged to read footnotes. Dissertations must be typewritten unless permission has been obtained from the Faculty Board to present work in manuscript. Apart from these two stipulations, there are no formal requirements concerning presentation and layout but the Department of Social Anthropology offers suggested guidelines as a useful rule of thumb (see Dissertation style guide on the Moodle course).

Use of video: candidates may submit a video or videoed material as an appendix. However, a special case can be made for video being submitted as integral to the subject of the dissertation. In that case, it will substitute for up to 25% of the written text. Written application must be made at the same time as titles are submitted for Departmental approval. In neither case should video material be longer than 20 minutes. Please note that instruction in the making of anthropological videos is not offered to Part II students; candidates considering this option should take advice from their Director of Studies, and should give careful consideration as to whether or not they wish to submit video for formal assessment. We have filming and editing facilities in our Visual Anthropology Lab, available for students to use for video projects whether formally submitted as part of the dissertation or not.

Examination: the dissertation counts towards the final degree as though it were a single examination paper and carries equal weighting. It will be read independently by two examiners, one of whom (who will not be the candidate’s supervisor) will hold a short oral examination (viva) on its scope and content and on background knowledge relevant to the topic.

Quality: successful candidates are expected to show both a theoretical grasp of intellectual issues in Social Anthropology and a substantive grasp of a body of knowledge. The range is assumed to include familiarity with a number of case studies/ ethnographies, as a basic training in comparative enquiry, and the dissertation affords excellent scope to demonstrate this. Examiners will look for evidence of the ability to formulate, develop and complete a piece of research. 


Research Ethics and Integrity

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 and detailed ASA ethics guidelines, which you should consult carefully while planning your research. As the statement from the ASA chair usefully points out, the above 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

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. 



For those considering conducting fieldwork, see the film ‘Fieldwork in the Himalayas’ narrated by Professor Alan Macfarlane. This film takes the viewer through the fieldwork endeavour, from leaving one’s own country through to getting back to it after fieldwork.

Past Dissertations

There are over 2000 social anthropology and archaeology dissertations stored in the Haddon Library on the Downing site which can be read as reference documents in the library, dissertations from 2020 to present are available to view online. For more information please see the Haddon library website.

Dissertation Resources


For deadlines, forms, past exam reports and to upload the final electronic version of your dissertation please see the Social Anthropology Dissertation Moodle Course.

Please note students enrolled on the Dissertation will automatically be enrolled on the Part IIB Social Anthropology Dissertation Moodle course and you will find a link to the course in the ‘My Home’ section of Moodle.

If you are a member of the University of Cambridge and you wish to view the past exam reports for dissertations then you can access the Moodle Course as a guest. For more information on how to access Moodle Courses as a guest please see Moodle Help.