Political Science Department
Writing a Political Science Research Paper
Political Science students are asked to write a number of different kinds of papers, including reaction papers, compare and contrast essays, close reading/textual analysis papers, and synoptic papers. The research paper is thus only one type of political science paper. It is, however, a type that has quite specific components and requirements.
The Thesis Statement
The most important and most challenging task for students writing a research paper is developing a thesis. A thesis is a non-trivial, contestable, specific claim about political phenomena that can be proven or defended through the analysis of primary source material.
(1) Your thesis must be non-trivial
A reader will want evidence that you are exploring an important question or topic. Explorations of the unimportant (e.g., "Canada's orange industry has been underappreciated") will not entice any but the most insensate readers. Readers will recoil, in particular, from faux theses that merely state what the author has done (e.g., "I have researched the European Union's trade policy").
(2) Your thesis must be contestable
Do not seek to prove the obvious (e.g., African American voters disproportionately support Democratic candidates for the presidency). The best theses make counterintuitive claims (e.g., revolutions often occur when conditions improve in a country after a long period of deprivation). There must be, at a minimum, alternative explanations for the phenomena you are exploring or different possible answers to the question you are posing. A good research paper directly engages these competing arguments by demonstrating that its explanation or answer is the most plausible.
(3) Your thesis must make a specific claim
A thesis should reference specific concepts and focus on a delimited field of inquiry. Statements such as "religion is the chief cause of conflict in the world," "the International Criminal Court violates political sovereignty," and "the Russian people always want a czar to lead them" are neither specific nor delimited. An example of a specific, focused thesis would be "Religious divisions cause social conflict to increase in Northern Ireland when they are reinforced by other cleavages or divisions." This statement sports two concepts—social conflict and cross-cutting vs. reinforcing cleavages—that the author must develop or support in order to address the influence of religion on conflict in a specific context.
(4) You must employ primary sources to demonstrate or defend your thesis
A literature review or a review of pertinent secondary sources (i.e., published books or articles that interpret or analyze primary sources) is not sufficient to demonstrate a thesis. A literature review is, as noted below, a significant component of your research paper, but your objective is not merely to review what other scholars have said about your topic. Your objective is to say something novel about your topic. This will require you to step outside of the published literature to mine information that you acquire firsthand. Primary sources include (but are not limited to) public opinion surveys, demographic data (e.g., U.S. Census data), government documents, open-ended interviews conducted by the author, oral histories, archival materials (e.g., letters, policy memos, diary entries, interoffice communications, transcripts of conversations, etc.), and speeches.
The Literature Review
A literature review should accomplish two goals:
- Introduce your reader to the range of scholarship on your topic. This exercise can help you to provide your reader with some purchase on the complexity of your subject.
- Identify the most important competing arguments or claims about your topic.
As mentioned above, accomplishing #2 is integral to your effort to demonstrate or defend your thesis. You must first acquaint your reader with both the strengths and the weakness of competing arguments before you can demonstrate that your argument is superior.
Your literature review should address the most important or influential works on your topic. You will need to review books, monographs, and journal articles. Doing the last will require you to employ such research databases as JSTOR, ProQuest, and PAIS.
The Data Analysis
The form that your data analysis takes will be determined to a large degree by your choice of method or approach. If you are using statistical methods (e.g., regression analysis) or formal modeling (e.g., game theory) to analyze your data, then your paper will consist principally of justifying your choice of method, specifying your variables, and presenting and interpreting your results. Students performing quantitative analysis will need to think carefully about how best to present their findings (e.g., graphs, tables, charts, etc.). Such students could profit from reviewing Edward Tufte's classic book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, particularly Tufte's discussions of "chartjunk."
If you are using qualitative data and methods, your paper will need to weave your findings into a narrative that is coherent, compelling, and probative. Students, for example, who decide to use the "case study approach" must devote some time to addressing the "small n problem." This, in short, is the challenge of explaining to the reader why one can generalize from a single or a small number of cases to a larger universe of cases. What makes your particular case or cases "crucial" or explanatory? It is not sufficient merely to claim that, for example, "there is a lot of information available on my case." You must choose your case or cases for sound theoretical reasons. Robert Michels, for example, decided to study the German Social Democratic Party to test his theory that all organizations are subject to "the iron law of oligarchy" because he posited that if power was concentrated in a small number of hands in a political party that sported a democratic ethos, then such oligarchic rule would surely occur in less ostentatiously democratic organizations.
A good conclusion should explain to the reader how your analysis has demonstrated that your argument is more persuasive than competing arguments. It should, in short, explain your contribution to the extant literature. Some pitfalls to sidestep when composing your conclusion are the following:
Do not go beyond your data
Even seasoned scholars can be guilty of concluding their pieces with grand statements that are not supported by their data. You can underscore your contribution to the literature without claiming that you have, for example, refuted all that has been written on your topic hitherto or created a "new paradigm." Showing respect for the work of other scholars, even that with which you disagree, is both courteous and sensible. Take care to identify the limitations of your findings or even some of the questionable parts of your analysis. Doing this will, if not immunize your work against criticism, at least allow you to get a jump on addressing some of the critiques that will be leveled at your work.
Do not sprinkle your conclusion with "questions for future research"
This is a complement of the above. Bear in mind that you are a novice researcher. It is more than a bit presumptuous to claim that your piece can be the foundation upon which other scholars will build.
Avoid boilerplate phrases such as "time will tell" or "no one can know for sure"
Conclusions are notorious for vaporous phrases that leave readers wondering, "What does that mean?" Take care that every sentence in your conclusion is meaningful (i.e., that it pertains to your argument). Short, tightly constructed and -argued conclusions are preferable to voluble, flabby conclusions that do not advance your case.
For Further Reading
Howard S. Becker with Pamela Richards, Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986)
Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)
Gregory M. Scott and Stephen M. Garrison, The Political Science Student Writers' Manual (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1995)
Ian Shapiro, Rogers M. Smith, and Tarek Masoud (eds.), Problems and Methods in the Study of Political Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)
Edward R. Tufte, Envisioning Information (Cheshire, Conn.: Graphics Press, 1990)
Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, second edition (Cheshire, Conn.: Chart Graphics, 2001) (pdf available online)
Tired of writing about the same tired old topics like the ban on smoking in public places, the dangers of texting and driving, or gun control? Good. Your professors are tired of reading about these topics, too.
When you’re writing a research paper, you want to impress your professors with your writing skills, but you also want to offer new insights into a topic. You won’t likely be able to write anything new and enlightening about these tired old topics in only a few thousand words.
So how do you impress your professor if you think he or she has heard it all before?
To begin with, try a newer and more original topic.
Stumped for fresh ideas?
Don’t worry. This blog post contains 25 interesting research paper topics to get you started.
5 Interesting Research Paper Topics on Local Issues
True, it might take a little more effort to research local issues, but you’re up for the challenge, right?
Besides, learning and writing about the concerns of your community not only keeps you informed and involved, but also makes for a great research paper.
A great research paper means a great grade, so how can you go wrong?
To start researching local issues, head straight to local newspapers and online sources. They won’t provide all the details you’ll need to write an in-depth research essay, but they’re a good place to begin your research.
Researching local issues is also another chance for you to practice your interviewing skills. (After all, you’ll need them when you become the next host of The Tonight Show, right?) Seriously though, what better way to get the inside scoop than by interviewing the parties directly involved in the issue?
Not sure what types of local issues to research? Try one of these.
Interesting Research Paper Topic #1. Local Political Scandals
Has a local politician embezzled money, been charged with corruption, or been involved in a sizzling sex scandal?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #2: Local University Dramas
Are employees trying to form (or break) local unions? Are students fighting for lower tuition or book costs? Has the college president (or other administrator) been in the local news lately for any number of issues? Are police investigating a cheating or athletic scandal?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #3: Small Business Struggles and Triumphs
Is a small business a cornerstone in your community, and you want to research its impact on the community? Is a small business struggling due to a new big box store in the area?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #4: Local Government Issues
Should local government do more to help its citizens? Should more money be allocated to fix roads and bridges? Is the city providing adequate services such as clean water, trash pick up, safe neighborhoods, etc.?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #5. Local Public School Battles
Have students and/or teachers been involved in a sexting scandal? Are the school board and/or parents battling over a new curriculum, athletic reform, or some other topic?
5 Interesting Research Paper Topics on Health and the Environment
You can research environmental or health topics ranging from small, local and regional topics to large, global issues.
For instance, you might research the best practices of sustainable cities to explain how your own city might work to emulate them. On the other hand, you might write from a global perspective and examine sustainable cities across the world.
If you’re writing about the environment or health, you might consider one of the following topics.
Interesting Research Paper Topic #6: BPA
Due to concerns with contaminants such a BPA, are canned foods safe to eat? Should stricter regulations be in place for labeling plastics containing BPA?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #7: Hunting Carnivores
Should the practice of killing carnivorous animals (such as wolves) to protect farms and livestock be stopped? Do ranchers have a right to protect their livestock by killing wolves? What are the results of allowing wolves to thrive?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #8: Sustainable Cities
Are sustainable cities and neighborhoods really possible? What are some examples of existing sustainable cities, and what are their best practices? What steps can you take to make your community sustainable?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #9: Plastic Bags
Should plastic bags (including plastic grocery bags) be banned in all 50 states? Should grocery stores charge a fee for each plastic bag used at the checkout? What are the effects of plastic bag bans in states that have already adopted the policy?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #10: Mountaintop Removal Mining
Should mountaintop removal mining be allowed to continue? Is mountaintop removal mining an effective coal mining method? What are the impacts of this type of mining on the communities that do it?
5 Interesting Research Paper Topics on Social Issues
Social topics impact us all. If you’re writing about social issues, you will generally be writing about how the topic affects larger groups of people, such as how poverty affects an entire generation.
However, keep in mind that social issues might also focus on smaller groups, such as a city or neighborhood.
If you’re feeling a little antisocial right now, spend a few minutes Googling some of these topics to see if they might work for your research paper.
Interesting Research Paper Topic #11: High School Dropouts
What social, personal, and political concerns lead to high school dropout rates? What are possible solutions to help decrease the dropout rate?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #12: Children and Poverty
How are children affected by poverty? What can governments do to help reduce child poverty? What can you do to help reduce child poverty?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #13: Medical Rights of Youths
Should 16 and 17 year olds have the right to refuse medical treatment? At what age do people have the right to determine whether or not they receive medical treatment?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #14: Overmedication of Children
Are children being overly medicated? If so, what is the driving force behind the rise in prescriptions?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #15: Free College Education
Should a college education be free for all U.S. citizens? How are free universities in Germany and other European countries benefiting these countries and students?
5 Interesting Research Paper Topics on Law Enforcement
Researching any issue about government or laws can become overwhelming because of the complexity of the issues and even because of the wording of some laws.
Spending time to review sufficient sources (and maybe getting a little help from a political science professor) will help you understand the topic.
Here are 5 topics to get you started.
Interesting Research Paper Topic #16: Technology and the Justice System
Is ShotSpotter technology reliable? Should the surveillance technology be admissible in court?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #17: Policing U.S. Law Enforcement
Should all police officers be required to wear body cameras? Will the use of body cameras reduce police brutality, and/or will it create a safer working environment for police?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #18: Juvenile Crime and Punishment
Should solitary confinement be banned for juveniles? Should juveniles be exempt from life sentences? Should juveniles be punished as adults for certain types of crimes?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #19: Incarceration Rates in the U.S.
What factors have led to increasing incarceration rates? How has this affected the U.S. economically and socially?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #20: License Plate Readers
Are license plate readers an invasion of privacy? Or, are these readers a necessary tool for law enforcement?
5 Interesting Research Paper Topics on Media, Social Media, and Advertising
As with anything involving media, social media, and advertising, watch out for biased and inaccurate information.
People like to share their opinions on such topics through forums, blogs, and their own websites. You know the type: the guy or gal who does nothing but blog all day long about the newest movie, the newest XBox game, or even the funniest Super Bowl commercial.
Though reading some anonymous blog that includes a glowing review of Grand Theft Auto and reading another that includes a scathing criticism of the sexism in the game might inspire some creative thought, you shouldn’t consider them credible research sources.
So remember, as you’re researching, make sure to look for credible resources. (Read How to Apply the CRAAP Test to Your Essay Sources.)
Not sure where to begin to look for ideas for media-related topics? You start with these.
Interesting Research Paper Topic #21: Business Exploitation of Social Media Profiles
Are teens (or adults) concerned that their use of social media is being exploited for profit by large companies? How do these new marketing strategies affect consumers and consumerism?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #22: Social Media and Self-Esteem
Can the use of social media, such as Facebook, lower teens’ self-esteem? Are there instances where these sites can help to raise teens’ self-esteem?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #23: E-Sports
Should e-sports be recognized as college sports? Can a sport that requires little physical ability really be considered a sport?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #24: Advertising in Schools
Should corporate advertising be allowed in public schools? Does corporate advertising provide much needed revenue to schools with limited federal funding?
Interesting Research Paper Topic #25: Advertising and Stereotypes
How does advertising perpetuate gender and/or racial stereotypes? Are ad campaigns that attempt to reverse the norms more or less effective?
Closing Tips on Writing an Interesting Research Paper
Remember, an interesting research paper starts with an interesting research paper topic. But choosing your topic is only the beginning.
Make sure you read How to Write a Research Paper: A Step-by-Step Guide to help you with refining and researching your topic and writing the final paper.
Don’t forget to choose a topic that interest you. If you’re bored while writing your paper, that will definitely show in your final product. If you’re excited about the topic, that will show too!
Not sure if you can work with any of the topics here? For more ideas, read 50 Research Paper Topics to Help Jumpstart Your Writing.
Looking for additional help choosing and refining interesting research paper topics? Try this resource! Want some additional help finding and narrowing your topic? Read this!
After you’ve written your paper and feel it’s complete, have one of our Kibin editors review it to make sure it’s great!
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