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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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.

The Conclusion

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)

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