The Comps Thesis

The thesis for the Sociology/Anthropology Senior Integrative Exercise (Comps), involves the execution of a major, individual project of sociological or anthropological research and analysis, culminating in a paper of professional article length, not to exceed 40 pages (ca. 12,000 words). (This limit does not include your title page, abstract, table of contents or any bibliographies.)  The two goals of this project are (1) that you demonstrate competence in some aspect of sociology and/or anthropology, and (2) that you integrate skills and knowledge that you have gained over the course of your studies. Such a project may be an in depth study of a particular group or social situation; it can be a comparison of a social phenomenon across time or cultures; it can be a deliberate test of one or more theories or hypotheses; or it can be an analysis of theories themselves in a socio-anthropological framework. Possible sources of data include library research, existing data sets, and/or collection of your own data via fieldwork (e.g., participant and non-participant observation, interviews, focus groups) and/or survey. The methods you choose should be appropriate both to your research question and your data.

We assume that you will complete SOAN 240:Methods of Social Research before your senior year. While the range of appropriate topics is broad, not all topics are feasible for a senior thesis. During the spring of your junior year and the beginning of the following fall term, students wishing to write a thesis must develop a convincing proposal. A fully-developed research proposal must be submitted by the end of the third week of fall term. This proposal must be accepted by the department before students can proceed to write the thesis.

The bulk of the writing of the thesis should be completed by the third week of winter term, and a final version of the thesis must be submitted by the due date late in winter term. Students will also be required to present their work in a talk or poster session open to the public, to be held early in spring term.

Students are expected to turn in all proposals, drafts, and the final thesis by the deadlines given below.

Guidelines for Preparing a Thesis


The main goal of the thesis is to give the student an educational experience of a different sort from any he/she is likely to have had before. Unlike most other projects you have undertaken, writing a thesis is not bounded by having to confirm to the goals of a course nor must it be completed in a few weeks’ time. Rather, it is meant above all to give each of you the opportunity to think up and work out the investigation of a topic that deeply interests or concerns you. In addition, with the length of time and the care you will be taking on the study, many of you will be able to produce an essay that can be fairly evaluated by the standards that practicing scholars in Sociology and Anthropology use to judge each other’s work.

Your comps experience will be most beneficial and successful if you keep the following concerns clearly in mind: (1) Seek guidance early and often. In addition to mandatory consultations with faculty that are built into the comps guidelines, it will be beneficial for you to seek out a topic on which a faculty member has some expertise to guide you appropriately. (2) Choose your topic carefully. Build upon your strengths and knowledge base; make sure the questions you pursue are compelling enough to sustain you over the entire year. (3) Remember that your comps thesis will not contain everything you have learned about Sociology and Anthropology. The most successful projects are well-focused. Nevertheless, you should approach this project as an opportunity to demonstrate (to yourself, to faculty, and to fellow students) what you have learned about some aspect of sociological and anthropological inquiry. (4) As with the rest of your educational opportunities, you will get approximately as much out of the comps process as the effort you put into it. This is a project that cannot be crammed. It is wise to be deliberate and conscientious about each phase of the work.

A thesis should not be thought of as just another paper, or a lengthy independent study. It places a greater responsibility on the students than that. While you will be working closely with your advisor, nonetheless you are the primary person responsible for conceiving the project, exploring its ramifications, and completing it in a way that both fulfills your goals and measures up to sociological and/or anthropological criteria applicable to the issues and data you are working with. Accomplishing such a task can benefit you in a number of ways. Perhaps the most important of these are that (1) you have the opportunity to carry out a major piece of research from start to finish; (2) you get the confidence of knowing you can do it; (3) you become an expert on something.

The thesis achieves these goals by two principal means: first, the freedom you have to choose your topic helps ensure that you will have the interest and excitement necessary to carry you through the inevitable hard times; second, it gives you enough time to make mistakes and false starts. Odd as it might seem at first, this is crucial.

Unfortunately, Carleton’s not-quite ten-week terms almost never give students a chance to learn from their mistakes, yet such learning is probably more meaningful and useful than any other kind. In doing papers you undoubtedly have had the experience of making mistakes – if only that of reading material that turned out not to be relevant – but you have rarely, if ever, had time to do more than patch it up somehow at the end. With comps, enough time is built into the process so that after discovering an inadequacy in your approach you have the opportunity to develop and use a more satisfactory one. Thus you learn by doing and also do objectively better work. Past distinction comps are available in the SOAN computer lab.

The point of professors (and fellow students)

Professors have been there before and can warn of dangers ahead, can make suggestions, and can help you find out how what you are attempting to do or study fits into the ongoing currents of research in sociology and anthropology. Both they and fellow students can, above all, question you – not to confuse you, but to strengthen your understanding of what you are doing and why you are doing it. Finally, they can offer moral support in the difficult times when you feel you are floundering around or nothing is going right.

Feel free to draw on any of the faculty – Soc/Anthro and others as well – for advice about your study. Remember, however, that what we professors generally do when asked for help is say what we would do in your place. After submitting your Topic Statement near the end of spring term you will be assigned a comps advisor. Since your advisor is the one who will be most familiar with what you are trying to do, you should also consult with him/her as to how best to utilize ideas and suggestions from other sources.

Students have often found it helpful to form writing groups. Students in a thesis writing group read and comment on each other’s drafts, provide encouragement and moral support, and help each other through those final revisions and proofreading. Your writing group members need not be working on topics similar to yours; in fact, it may be more interesting and fun if they aren’t!

Theoretical Orientations

The conceptualization and theoretical orientation of your thesis is crucial to its success. Theoretical orientations will help you interpret, describe, explain, measure, or otherwise approach your topic. For example, to study social movements you can use theories of resource mobilization, collective behavior, or frame alignment, among others. Or, to look at questions of ethnic identity you can follow primordial, constructed, or strategic models (each with several subtypes). These are only illustrations. Your thesis may be conceived as an application or test of a particular theory (e.g., strategic model of ethnic identity), or may draw upon several. You may focus on “mid-range” theories, or draw upon broader, foundational theoretical orientations (such as functionalism, conflict theory, etc, for more specific examples refer to the list on the Department’s web page).

Developing and defining the theoretical orientation constitutes the hard part of your thesis work. Indeed, it is the hardest part of doing any sociological or anthropological work, and the ability to do it well is what distinguishes prominent, creative scholars from others. Get a sense of it by thinking about how scholars have analyzed things in the courses you have taken, by further reading in the area of your thesis project (making full use of library sources, such as Annual Reviews, Sociological Abstracts, and other specialized bibliographic tools), and by talking with faculty and other students. Or, take your favorite, most inspiring article on your thesis topic and look at how explanation and interpretation, or some other kind of analysis emerges from and/or is supported by the data. These are invaluable aids and strategies, but there is no simple, cookbook guide for this sort of thing, nor can anyone else do it for you. In the final analysis you yourself must do the very hard work of thinking through and struggling with the analytical and theoretical issues your topic raises.

Manuscript style and style of citation and references

You should use one of the standard forms of citation used by anthropologists or sociologists in preparing your final project. The Department’s web page provides an overview of citation styles and links to more detailed guidelines. The Final Checklist provides an overview of manuscript preparation requirements. Refer also to the ASA Style Guide and the AAA Style Guide.

Wilkie