No, These Are Not the Best Cultural Anthropology Dissertations

Since 2009, the blog AnthropologyWorks has created an annual list of the “Best Cultural Anthropology Dissertations.” Being included on this list seems as if it might be a grand honor, but is it? Unfortunately, the answer is no, not really.

Here is why: the process for choosing the “best” dissertations is problematic. It consists of one anthropologist reading the abstracts of dissertations published in that year. Just the abstracts; no actual dissertations are read to determine which are “best.”

But it gets worse: only abstracts of dissertations in certain research areas are eligible. In order to be considered, one’s scholarship must overlap with the focus of the AnthropologyWorks blog, as follows: “food, resources, and livelihoods; power and politics; health; conflict and violence; population dynamics; stratification including race, class, gender, and age; activism, programs and policies.” This list is wide, but is not inclusive of all possible anthropology topics. If you don’t do research on any of these topics, you are not even considered for “best” distinction.

For the final blow, only scholarship from the USA is included. Have a PhD from outside the U.S.? Is it fantastic? Too bad. You’re not eligible for consideration.

None of this might matter if the list had a different title. Perhaps something like:

  • Dissertations I’d Most Like to Read
  • My List of Promising U.S. Dissertations from [Year]
  • Most Compelling Dissertation Abstracts From U.S.-Based Anthropologists According to AnthropologyWorks

Instead, by being titled “Best Cultural Anthropology Dissertations,” the list misleads. Here at SM, we’ve thought this for a while, but also felt these points were so obvious as to not need us to point them out. However, as the social ecology of online anthropology changes, and not all read the fine print of such “awards,” this PSA came into being.


Anthropologists, go out and do excellent work. Do it wherever you are. Do it on the topics that matter. And trust us, as frightening as it might sound, there are indeed people beyond your committee who are going to read your entire dissertation. And (hopefully) they will think it is excellent.




Carole McGranahan

I am an anthropologist and historian of Tibet, and a professor at the University of Colorado. I conduct research, write, lecture, and teach. At any given time, I am probably working on one of the following projects: Tibet, British empire, and the Pangdatsang family; the CIA as an ethnographic subject; contemporary US empire; the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet; the Chushi Gangdrug resistance army; refugee citizenship in the Tibetan diaspora (Canada, India, Nepal, USA); and, anthropology as theoretical storytelling.

4 thoughts on “No, These Are Not the Best Cultural Anthropology Dissertations

  1. No, although they are welcome to reply here. Given that this list has been generated for the last eight years, and they are very clear about the decision-making parameters, there is no ambiguity about the process.

  2. Always you deliver good stuff…. By the way, I have a particular question on your text what makes sthg ethnographic, I would appreciate you you write to me about the limits between literature and ethnography…

  3. Yes, all very valid points. I posted the exact same critique in the comments section below the ’50 best’ article in AnthropologyWorks a few weeks ago. I was then informed my comment was awaiting moderation. Given I said something to the extent that Trump would approve of their pro-American, post-truth methods, unsurprisingly the comment went unpublished. Ok, perhaps that was a little low, but I find it hard to believe that such a piece has been going for 8 yeas and no one has called out the utterly biased, unscientific nature of their assessment. Wake up AnthroWorks!

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