All students majoring within the Department of Sociology at Whitman College are required to write a senior thesis during the last spring semester in which they are in residence at the college, and to defend this thesis before a committee composed of faculty members of the college.

This isn't as scary as it sounds. After all, all of these people did it (PDF).

Sociology Thesis and Orals Student Learning Goals

Although Sociology majors will receive detailed instructions on the senior thesis during their senior year (and anyone can seek info about the thesis from any professor in the Department), here are some general guidelines.

What the thesis is: Although a senior thesis is an original written work produced by a student, it is likely to be somewhat different from other undergraduate papers which the student has written, both in objective and in scope. Essentially, a thesis seeks to investigate a topic, or solve a problem, or answer a question. Hence, it starts with a goal which is relatively specific – and, generally, somewhat original – and it seeks to achieve that goal in a clear, logical and effective fashion. However, in addition, it is generally not sufficient that a senior thesis simply describe what others who have investigated the student's thesis topic in the past have done; rather, it is expected that the student's thesis will go substantially beyond these earlier works, and that it will, through evaluation, criticism, integration or original research, represent a somewhat unique and original contribution to the field.

Topics: The choice of a topic appropriate for a senior thesis in Sociology is virtually limitless. Any problem, issue, or question, which relates in some way to the social behavior of human beings, can represent a viable thesis topic, provided that it is handled properly by the writer. Given the great degree of latitude which the student obviously has in selecting his/her thesis topic, then, important considerations in choosing a particular topic are likely to include the accessibility of the data necessary to investigate the topic, the student's prior knowledge of and background in the topic, and, perhaps most importantly, the student's own personal interest in and/or questions regarding the topic under consideration.

Methodology: As is the case in choosing the topic to be addressed in the thesis, the selection of the general methodology and the specific procedures that will be used to investigate this topic will also be largely dependent upon the student's interests, objectives, and resources. On the one hand, there is no one methodology which is inherently better than others as the basis for a senior thesis; rather, there are many possible ways to do good sociology. Thus, for example, critiquing and/or integrating the work of others, theoretical analyses, social surveys, observational procedures, case studies, analyses of existing statistics, content analyses of secondary sources, historical analyses, cross-cultural studies, experimental techniques, etc. all represent procedures of investigation which are legitimate and highly appropriate for a senior thesis in Sociology. In addition, it should perhaps be emphasized here that a successful thesis need not be empirical in nature; non-empirical, theoretical, and/or qualitative approaches, if done well, are just as acceptable in the eyes of the members of the department as theses based upon and/or utilizing original empirical research.

Important components of the thesis: While this is in no way an exhaustive list, nor meant to constrain students, these components outline the general shape of most senior Sociology theses.

  • A statement of the objective(s) of the thesis
  • A review of the literature relevant to the thesis
  • A discussion of the theoretical approach(es) to be utilized by the writer in investigating his/her thesis topic
  • A statement of the research design that has been utilized in carrying out the investigation of the thesis
  • An analysis and interpretation of the results of the thesis
  • The implications of the results, and concluding statements
  • References

Length: It is to be expected that theses will vary substantially in length, depending upon such factors as the topic which has been investigated, the methodological procedures which have been utilized, and the student's individual writing style. Therefore, the department has avoided establishing any formal minimum or maximum length requirements for the senior thesis. However, for purposes of information, of the 303 senior theses written within the Department of Sociology between the 1977-78 and 1995-96 academic years, the following lengths (including bibliography and appendices) were recorded:

# of Pages# of Theses
Under 20 0
20 - 40 69
41 - 60 125
61 - 80 57
81 - 100 33
101 - 150 10
Over 150 9

Although there are no formal length requirements for the senior thesis, it should be emphasized that it is the department's expectation that the thesis will be of a scope and a sophistication of considerable magnitude, and that these qualities will be clearly reflected in the thesis, regardless of its length per se.

The Senior Year

Sociology 492/498: All senior sociology majors are required to enroll in one of these seminar classes (492 is standard, 498 honors). The purpose of this seminar is to provide important thesis information to students and to give them the opportunity to use their peers as a resource (by, for example, presenting preliminary drafts for their critique).

Selection of topic: Students should have their thesis topic selected prior to the semester in which the thesis is to be written (generally Spring semester). If they are able to select the topic and start sooner, so much the better.

Selection of thesis adviser: By the end of the first week of the spring semester, the student should have selected a thesis adviser (although this decision may be made much earlier than this). Typically, the faculty member selected as the student's thesis adviser will have considerable expertise and/or interest in the subject matter upon which the student has chosen to write.

Selection of the thesis committee: In addition to his/her thesis adviser, the student will also select a thesis committee, consisting of two (or more) additional Sociology faculty members. In addition, it is the prerogative of the student to add to his/her committee one or more additional faculty members, either from the Department of Sociology or from other disciplines, to provide guidance and expertise seen as beneficial to the completion of a successful thesis. It is the purpose of the student's thesis committee to serve as resource persons to assist the student in the researching and writing of the thesis, and, in addition, to serve as the examination committee for the student's senior comprehensive examination.

Preliminary drafts: Although it is not a formal requirement of Sociology 492, it is suggested that the student submit preliminary drafts of the thesis -- either in parts and/or in its entirety -- to his/her thesis adviser (and, perhaps to the other members of the thesis committee, as well).

Final thesis draft: To insure the scheduling of the student's comprehensive examination, it is necessary that the thesis be completed and submitted no later than the end of the tenth week of the semester. It is the student's responsibility to provide a separate copy of the final thesis draft to each member of his/her thesis committee at that time.

Evaluation of the senior thesis: The student's final grade for Sociology 492 or 498 will be determined by the quality of the final thesis draft, as well as by the student's performance in the senior comprehensive examination, in which he/she defends the thesis to his/ her thesis committee. The evaluation of the student's final thesis draft will be carried out by his/her thesis committee, who will judge it according to its overall competency, its general level of sophistication, the extent to which it makes use of a viable sociological perspective, and the writing skills demonstrated by the student.

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The Senior Comprehensive Examination

The oral examination: Seniors majoring in the Department of Sociology meet the college requirement of a senior comprehensive examination by taking an oral examination of two hours length. The focus of this examination is a defense of the thesis that has been produced by the student in the Sociology 492 or Sociology 498 course in which he/she has been enrolled that semester. The student should note that he/she could expect to be questioned, not only on the specific findings reported and the conclusions reached in the thesis, but also on the general theory and methodology utilized and the various sources referred to therein. In addition, the questions of the committee are also likely to range beyond the thesis per se, to address sociological questions or issues only tangentially related to the specific topic of the student's thesis.

When it happens: The student will take his/her comprehensive examination during the eleventh or the twelfth week of the semester in which he/she has been enrolled in and fulfilled the requirements of Sociology 492 or Sociology 498. The student's examination will be scheduled by the instructor of the Sociology 492 course, in consultation with the student and the members of his/her examination committee.

Evaluation of the comprehensive examination: If the thesis committee finds the thesis and the student's oral defense of the thesis to be acceptable, a grade of "Passed" or "Passed with Distinction" will be awarded for the comprehensive examination. If either the thesis and/or the thesis defense are evaluated as unacceptable, the student will be notified immediately whether he/she will have to retake the comprehensive examination, and what, if anything, can be done to meet the requirements of the Sociology 492 course.