Survey Research in Anthropology: Part 1- Finding a Research Topic

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So, in the last blog post, you learned that sometimes Anthropologists use surveys to collect data on the people they are studying. In this blog post, I’ll be talking about finding a research topic. 

When you want to give out a survey, there are questions that you want answered. But how do you know what to ask people? Well, you need to find a research topic and a research question. Your survey can then help you answer your research question. 

If you are a student, maybe your instructor has already given you a research topic or question. But what if you are starting from scratch? How do you come up with a research topic and research question? This post will address finding a research topic, and the next post will show you how to get a research question.

The first thing to do is to figure out what interests you. Your research topic should be something that you are interested in, otherwise, it will be boring and you won’t have a lot of motivation to finish the research. For example, are you interested in food and nutrition? Or maybe education and literacy? Or something else? Take some time and figure out what interests you. 

If you need help figuring out what you are interested in, then try going to a university library, and visiting the section where the Anthropology-related books are. Browse the books for a couple of hours, and see if you find anything interesting. 

You could also browse through an introductory textbook on Cultural Anthropology. Typically, each chapter in a Cultural Anthropology textbook is about a different topic—for example, there’ll probably be a chapter on economics, a chapter on gender, a chapter on families and kinship, and so on. 

Another way to browse topics to see what you are interested in is to use the Outline of Cultural Materials from the HRAF (Human Relations Area Files). This is a list of broad topics in Anthropology and can be found online here:

So, now you should have determined what broad topic in Anthropology interests you. The second thing to do is to do some background research to get an overview of your topic. This will help you get a general understanding of your topic, and help you figure out what subtopics are in your general topic. 

A good way to do this is to use a specialized encyclopedia. You’ll need to go to a university library and find an Anthropology-related encyclopedia. If you don’t know where to look, just ask the librarian for help. You can also search for online Anthropology encyclopedias, but most of them require a subscription. See if a library near you has access to any online Anthropology-related encyclopedias. 

There is a new open-access encyclopedia called the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology, which is online at this address: More and more topics are being added to this encyclopedia, and it might have some information on your topic. 

You can also look at an introductory Cultural Anthropology textbook, and read the sections of the book that contain the topic you are interested in. 

So, now you know a little more about your topic of interest. The next step is to narrow your topic down to a subtopic. For example, say you are interested in health and illness. You did some background reading and decided that infectious diseases were an interesting subtopic to study. Even though you have chosen a topic (health and illness) and narrowed it down (to infectious diseases), this is still way too big a topic– it needs to be narrowed down even further. For example, maybe just research one disease, so let’s say you pick influenza — the flu. Now you have a basic working research topic, influenza.

You’ll still need to narrow this topic down further and choose a research question, but these will be discussed in the next blog post.

Want to Learn More About Survey Research?

Just join my Udemy class, “Exploring Surveys in Anthropology Research: Anthropology 4U.” 

Thanks for reading!