PLEASE NOTE: We are pausing MVA admissions in order to make curricular revisions.


Southern California Text by sunset


Continuing a 30-year tradition of ethnographic documentary production, the Department of Anthropology at USC offers a Masters degree in Visual Anthropology (MVA) that can be completed in one calendar year of full-time, or two years of study. The MVA program is open to college graduates who have a background in anthropology, social science, cultural studies, visual studies, film studies, documentary production and also to USC undergraduates. We provide a scholarly environment for the study and practice of anthropological media, and hands-on training in ethnographic research methods and documentary production techniques (camera, sound, editing).

Founded by acclaimed anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff, best known for her Academy Award-winning documentary Number Our Days (1976), the Center for Visual Anthropology at USC was led from 1982-1994 by Timothy Asch, a pioneer in incorporating ethnographic film into the practice and teaching of anthropology. Over the Center’s history, students and faculty have produced more than 150 ethnographic documentaries. Among the distinctions garnered by this body of work are: an Academy Award, an Academy Award nomination, a Sundance Grand Prize, and a national broadcast on the PBS television series POV. Learn more about the program’s history in these features from our archive:

Feel free to contact Graduate Program Advisor, Jennifer Vo, with any questions about the program or application process.


Master of Arts in Visual Anthropology (MVA)

Students in the MVA program at USC study qualitative research methods, contemporary anthropological theory, and ethnographic film history and theory alongside practice classes in anthropological media production (in Anthropology) and non-fiction cinematic practice (at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, Division of Media Arts + Practice). Students typically complete the MVA as an intensive, full-time program that spans a calendar year, including the summer after coursework, during which they complete a 20- to 30-minute thesis film based on original ethnographic research. There is also the option to complete the MVA degree over two years of study, providing students who have work or other obligations more flexibility in undertaking the coursework and field research required.

Most students do the bulk of their filming in southern California, but some have completed their projects overseas—though this is typically only feasible for students who are already familiar with an overseas research site, and have contacts there to build on. Coursework requirements for the MVA also mean that students must be present on campus at USC in Southern California for much of the academic year, restricting opportunities for more remote filming.

MVA graduates have screened at major ethnographic film festivals—such as the Society for Visual Anthropology Film and Media Festival and Royal Anthropological Institute Film Festival—and have won fellowships and honors from Visual Communications, the International Documentary Association, and Sundance Institute | YouTube New Voices Lab, among others. All MVA thesis films are eligible for inclusion in the MVA Collection from Alexander Street Press, but alumni are welcome to pursue other distribution options.


MVA Thesis Films

Explore our archive of MVA Thesis films. Learn about these ethnographic works produced with links to synopses, trailers and full films available online.


MVA Trailers


MVA Full Films Freely Available Online


MVA Program Requirements

  • Completion of 32 units of required coursework.
  • Completion of a 20- to 30-minute ethnographic documentary project.

The one-year MVA program demands a full-time, 12-month commitment as students spend the summer following spring coursework completing their media projects.

It is now an option to spread the requirements for the degree over two years of study, providing students with work or other obligations with more flexibility in completing the degree. Contact the Graduate Program Advisor for more information on the 2-year option.

Students can check out camera and audio equipment for use on their projects, and use editing labs and software, but must buy their own digital storage drives.


MVA Coursework

Fall semester

  • Contemporary Theory in Anthropology (ANTH 502, 4 units)
  • Seminar in Ethnographic Film (ANTH 575, 4 units)
  • Anthropological Media Seminar (ANTH 576L, 4 units)
    Hands-on workshop in video production fundamentals and their application to a broad conception of ethnographic and documentary approaches
  • Non-fiction Cinematic Practice  (IML 520, 2 units)
    Taught in the digital media lab of Media Arts + Practice, USC School of Cinematic Arts

Spring semester

  • The Practice of Ethnography (ANTH 562, 4 units)
  • One course (4 units) chosen from graduate courses in Anthropology or Visual Studies
  • Advanced Anthropological Media Seminar (ANTH 577L, 4 units)
    Hands on workshop in video editing and post-production
  • Non-fiction Cinematic Practice  (IML 521, 2 units)
    Taught in the digital media lab of Media Arts + Practice, USC School of Cinematic Arts
  • Ethnographic Postproduction (ANTH 595, 4 units) – recommended for Spring 2021, required thereafter


MVA Visual Media Project

In addition to the required coursework, candidates for the MVA must complete an ethnographic media project, typically a 20- 30-minute documentary video. Students are expected to complete their media projects during the summer following the successful completion of spring coursework. The final media project must be submitted in mid-August.