Department of Political Science, Queens College

How to Research a Political Science Paper
Peter Liberman, Queens College Dept. of Political Science, September 2001

1. What is a political science research paper?
The first biggest challenge in writing a research paper is choosing a question to answer. Research is all about answering questions, and not all questions are created equal. It is always better to work on important and interesting questions than irrelevant, obscure, trivial, or boring ones. An important question is one requiring new knowledge to solve a practical problem. "What do the experts think about X" simply calls for a summary of how others have answered the question, and thus provides nothing new.

Don't confuse topics with questions. You may have a general topic in mind, but it is unwise to start researching (not to mention writing) until you've narrowed down the topic down to a clear question. This will help you to narrow down the research sources you'll be looking for, and to write a coherent, focused paper.

While useful research solves problems, it is best to focus on questions where incomplete or flawed understanding impedes progress. Rather than tackle a big problem head on ("How to end the arms race?" "How to stop global warming?"), you will help make progress if you focus on aspects of arms races or global warming that we don't fully understand. Otherwise, your paper may end up an exercise in exhortation ("If we could only all stop building weapons" or "If everyone would only just stop burning fossil fuels") rather than in research.

Beginning researchers may want to cut their teeth on questions that have already been answered by others with more knowledge and experience. But as you get to be a more advanced researcher, you'll want to tackle questions that haven't been answered yet, at least not adequately.

There are several kinds of questions that political science students (and scholars) tackle. Some projects combine two or more of the following, but most focus on just one. All are valid and important contributions to political science and practical policy knowledge.

* Theory-proposing projects advance a deductive argument for new hypotheses about the way the world works (or, in the case of political theory, the way it should work).
* Theory-testing projects use empirical evidence to evaluate existing theories.
* Stock-taking projects summarize and evaluate the existing theoretical and empirical literature on a subject. The question asked is whether the theories are valuable and whether the tests are persuasive.
* Historical explanation projects use theory to explain what caused particular historical events or patterns. This differs from pure history in the explicit use of general theory.
* Policy analysis projects evaluate existing or hypothetical policy proposals. Students might examine whether one or more of the factual or theoretical assumptions of the proposals are valid or invalid, in light of logic or empirical evidence. This kind of analysis is essential to predicting whether a policy will work as advertised.
* Predictive projects forecast future developments based on an analysis of current events and relevant theories.