Ph.D. in Anthropology

The Anthropology of Public Life

The Anthropology Ph.D. program at GW provides rigorous training and fosters collaborative relationships among students and faculty. The relatively small program size (cohorts are generally about three students) encourages close relationships across the program. We promote a vibrant intellectual community, supported through a faculty-student reading group, regular colloquia, and an annual symposium. In addition to a strong grounding in the foundational traditions of the discipline, including exposure to the different sub-fields that have defined anthropology in the United States, students pursue advanced training in small seminars and independent study courses.

The Ph.D. program seeks to admit students with scholarly interests in “public life.” Students in the program pursue a range of theoretically-engaged ethnographic research questions under this rubric, generally clustered around three areas:

1) The social world of public policy, both in centers of power, often located only blocks from GW, and in the diverse range of places where these policies are formulated, contested and put into practice

2) The complex work of governance at global, national, and local scales; the discourse and practice of scientific, bureaucratic, and religious authority

3) The constitutive and contested role of materiality and material culture in the various dimensions of social life; how things are made, consumed and circulate through time and space.

We invite applications to the PhD program that explore these questions in a variety of places and through many different topics. In the 2019-2020 application cycle, we especially encourage applicants working in the areas of digital ethnography and disability:

Digital Ethnography

We take up the digital as a fundamental aspect of contemporary life. By examining this communicative code in its social and cultural contexts of use, we seek to understand how it constitutes, transforms and disrupts the representational and material features of present day experience. Digital ethnography examines sociocultural relations not only in terms of Internet-based sociality and economy, but also concerning how the “online” upsets and collaborates with more traditional, “offline” categories such as kinship, labor, gender, power, mobility, and inequality. To learn more about digital ethnography in GW’s Anthropology department, contact: Joel Kuipers <[email protected]> or Alex Dent <[email protected]>


The anthropology of disability draws on a social model of disability to study how societies create and classify impairments. In this view, society and not the individual is responsible for disability, as when a person who uses a wheelchair is disabled only when the environment has no ramps or elevators.  Cross-cultural studies of disability have been crucial in illustrating that what one community sees as deviant, another may see as expected, or at least socially appropriate; that disability reverberates through multiple levels of society (such as kinship, politics, religion, and aesthetics); and that categories of health, sickness, and impairment affect the way power is exercised by a range of institutions, including local and federal government, the medical and psychological professions, and the insurance and pharmaceutical industries.  To learn more about the study of disability in GW’s anthropology department contact: Richard Grinker [email protected].


We do not provide training in applied anthropology, though we anticipate that program graduates will put their theoretical and methodological skills to use in a diversity of professional settings.

Students will benefit greatly from GW's long-standing partnership with the Smithsonian Institution and access to Washington, DC's archival collections and policy-making institutions. Students may also avail themselves of the department’s strengths in a variety of approaches to the discipline of anthropology.

All students admitted into the program receive a fellowship that provides tuition, stipend, and teaching assistant salary. Students are expected to apply for external funding to support dissertation research and writing. At least one student may be partially supported through funding from the GW Institute for Ethnographic Research while working as an assistant editor for the journal Anthropological Quarterly.


The program is currently accepting students with specializations in sociocultural anthropology, linguistic anthropology, and archaeology. Those with interests in biological anthropology are encouraged to investigate our sister Ph.D. program in Human Paleobiology.

The topics faculty are prepared to guide students in exploring include but are not limited to: conflict and post-conflict societies, displacement and humanitarianism, intellectual property and piracy, transnational feminism, military cultures, piety and authoritative discourse, psychological anthropology, and social inequality.

Prospective applicants should look at faculty bios and identify professors they would be interested in working with. Faculty who are available to advise Ph.D. students in Anthropology include Ahmad, Bell, Blomster, Dent, Feldman, Grinker, Gusterson, Lubkemann, Kuipers, Miller, and Wagner.

Though there are many variables that go into admission, and our program is highly competitive, the most important aspect of your application is your statement of purpose, which is included along with your recommendations, GRE scores, and application form. This statement should convey your scholarly interests and intellectual questions in about two single-spaced pages. We recognize that your interests may change as you go through the program, but the more specific you can be about the literature you are engaged with and the project you hope to pursue, the better placed we are to evaluate your fit for our program.

Applications will be accepted for the 2019-20 academic year through December 1st, 2019. Procedural questions about test score reporting, the receipt of letters of recommendation, etc., should be addressed to the college office.

If you have questions about the program, you are welcome to e-mail the Ph.D. program director, Sarah Wagner (s[email protected]).

Information on how to apply is found at the Columbian College graduate application page.

Degree Requirements

The degree requires 72 total credit hours, including at least 12 and at most 24 hours of Dissertation Research (Anth 8999). 48 of the 72 credits must be taken in the pre-candidacy stage (before completing the General Examination).

Phase One

  • Three core proseminars (Anth 6101-6104).
  • A research methods seminar.
  • A professional skills and ethics seminar.
  • Elective course work.
  • All students are required to demonstrate proficiency in one foreign language; the student's graduate committee reserves the right to require an additional language if needed for fieldwork or archival research.
  • A 3-credit internship in anthropology and public life at a Washington, DC area institution — such as congressional offices, public radio and television, or the Smithsonian Institution — responsible for communicating anthropological knowledge to diverse audiences (recommended).

Phase Two

  • Prepare a research proposal that meets funding agency guidelines.
  • Take a written General Examination in at least three major areas of concentration (e.g., a general field in anthropological theory, a geographic area, and a thematically defined field).
  • Following successful completion of the General Examination, there will be an oral defense of the student's research proposal. Students who pass will advance to candidacy for the Ph.D.
  • Candidates must complete a dissertation that demonstrates their ability to do original research. Since Ph.D. candidates work closely with a small number of faculty, applicants should consult our faculty list in order to identify appropriate mentors or advisers.

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