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)
Constructing an Argument
When asked to give advice about writing political science papers, Professor Ellen Andersen explained that most papers written for political sciences classes are arguments. “However,” she said, “do not write a persuasive essay about your opinion on the subject. Instead, take evidence and use it to support an academic argument. Use this academic argument to show your learning. Do not decide on an argument you want to make and then make it, regardless of what the evidence says. Be sure to engage with the other side of the debate honestly. Rather than dismissing it, think about it. That is how real growth happens.” For most assignments, you can follow a very basic format for an academic argument. Begin the process by finding trustworthy information. Then explore your material and orgranize your thoughts in a manner that works best for you. You can then start to construct your thesis statement.
The basic format of a political science essay
- The Introduction should articulate a clear argument and outline the paper’s structure explicitly. It can be a couple of sentences or a couple of paragraphs, or even a couple of pages for a really long paper. Make sure that your thesis responds to all aspects of the assignment.
- To show how your argument builds on previous research on your topic, include a literature review. You can do this as part of your introduction, in a section immediately following your introduction, or within each of your body sections, whichever seems most appropriate for your paper.
- Body Sections
- You can have as many body sections as you need.
- Body sections just mean you’re making a point about one aspect of your topic. They can have just one paragraph or as many as you need to make your point. For example, if you’re talking about the process of a bill becoming a law, you’re going to have subtopics within those over-arching sections, like what happens in the House, what happens in the Senate, and then what happens when they both finally agree on a version of the bill-and that's okay. Just be aware of staying on-topic and transitioning smoothly from one to the next.
- How to set up your body paragraphs
- Small thesis: what is this paragraph about? It should be your starter sentence, and also tie neatly into the last sentence (flow is important)!
- Evidence and analysis. The important thing to remember here is that you're not going “Quote 1,” “Quote 2,” “Quote 3,” and then analysis of quote 2, analysis of quote 3. You should be giving your evidence and analyzing it as you go; tell us what it means that the House is mad about an amendment the Senate added to a bill before you assault us with a quote about how the President feels.
- Summarizing/transition sentence. Finish up what you're saying, and then in the same sentence or another sentence, explain the train of thought that leads to your next point/paragraph.
- Your conclusion should tie back to your thesis, but do not just restate your thesis.
- Before writing your conclusion, take this opportunity to review your essay. Does your essay follow your thesis statement? Have you created an argument and provided evidence that supports this thesis? If yes, then go on to write your conclusion. If no, consider changing your thesis (and revising as appropriate).
- Be careful that the restatement of the thesis doesn't seem like you're copying and pasting your thesis statement from the introduction. Your conclusion needs to be the summation of your entire essay; it’s your chance to state your point strongly and tie up any loose ends.
- Do not introduce new figures or statistics or evidence to prove your point. You should be done with introducing information. Now you're telling us what it means, why it's significant on a broader scale or in a bigger picture, and why we should care.
- Your conclusion should tie back to your thesis, but do not just restate your thesis.
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Outlining, Grouping, Mind mapping, Free writing… Organize your thoughts!
Conceptual and factual knowledge is essential in a political science paper–interesting metaphors, grand generalizations, and a lot of “BS” will not lead to a smart paper (and will be quickly recognized by your professor). The key is to develop a solid argument with supportive evidence. It is also essential that you understand your argument in order to convincingly and eloquently present it to the reader–if you're not sure, the reader won’t be either!
There are many different ways to go about organizing a paper. To perfect that crucial organization element, consider using one of the four common approaches illustrated below. Each example is for an essay exploring connections between political power and power over the media.
- Make an outline! Outlines can tell you how organized your paper is, where there are holes in your argument that require more research, or where information may need to be cut.
See Detailed Outline.
- If you don't like the strict formatting of an outline, try organizing your thoughts through bulleted lists.
See Bulleted List
- If you like diagrams, consider drawing a mind map or web that shows the connections between your ideas.
See Mind Map/Web
- If you're more of a puzzler, try writing your information on separate note cards and then rearranging them to physically build a picture of your argument. This can also be done electronically by typing up all of your information and then rearranging it on a computer.
See Notecard Puzzle
- If you don't yet know what sections to break your paper into, try starting with a free write that focuses on the prompt. You can see what ideas you have and start to find some connections between them.
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Write a Thesis Statement!
A thesis is…
- …an arguable statement that will serve as a condensed version of the argument that you make in the paper.
- …not a factual statement about your topic.
- …your opportunity to make an assertive claim that you will then back up using your collected evidence in your body paragraphs. In essence, it will provide a “roadmap” for the rest of the paper.
- …not necessarily just one sentence.
How do I construct my thesis statement?
- After having organized all of the information that you consider pertinent to the prompt, you will have likely noticed some form of argument that all your information is building to. Investigate this further and determine if there is some sort of claim that your evidence naturally points to.
- If you did not see a natural argument emerging, dig further, rearrange your information to see if something else emerges, or consider doing more research that would provide you with more information on the topic.
- Pull out the key ideas from the argument that you begin to see forming and write down what you think you could argue. Remember that a thesis can be rewritten many, many times and what you write down first is in no way set in stone. In fact, you should spend some time rewriting and reevaluating your thesis in order to see if the claim you are making is really what you want to say.
- You may feel more comfortable writing out your claims and information first and then seeing where the essay takes you. In this case, it may work better for you to come up with a simple thesis first, without tinkering heavily with the meaning or the wording. However, it is important to return to your preliminary thesis after having written the entire paper in order to refine it and ensure its essence is still true to the paper.
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Finding Trustworthy Information
Evidence and information combine to form the backbone of a Political Science essay, as these crucial pieces support your thesis and all of the claims you make therein. When your paper uses accurate and carefully selected facts, your argument becomes harder to debunk and proves to your professor that you understand the material as well as the research process. Sadly, certain people stand to gain from pushing false information on the generally uninformed and careless public. The following suggestions should help you find objective and truthful evidence in your research process.
- Start looking for information early - when you have an idea of your topic
- Looking for evidence at the last minute can lead to decreased standards and pulling questionable facts from untrustworthy sources
- Use the librarys available resources - particularly the online databases - rather than Google
- These databases contain vast amounts of published information, usually written by experts in the field
- Be on the lookout for signs of deceit in a source, such as
- Making things sound scarier or worse than they actually are
- Presenting ideas/data that seem too good to be true
- Results that have not been replicated, or seem like standalone occurrences
- The group that publishes/conducts a study benefiting greatly from the results (potential bias/impartiality)
- For example, if the NRA funded a study showing how gun ownership is tied to economic prosperity, they would gain members and donations thus, we should make sure theyre being impartial in their research methods
- Analyze evidence skeptically, but not cynically
- Look thoroughly at evidence from research sources and only use that piece of information if everything seems to check out and doesnt leave you feeling unsure - implement a healthy skepticism while looking at facts
- Avoid becoming a cynic who rejects every piece of information without considering it
- This makes you just as gullible as someone who accepts everything they read, as people can play upon your inclination to reject facts to spin your understanding of issues in their favor
- The key distinction is that a skeptic will realize a piece of information is trustworthy, while a cynic will never believe anything, regardless of its veracity
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