How to Research a Political Science Paper
by Peter Liberman, Queens College Dept. of Political Science
This brief memo provides some guidance for students embarking on research projects in political science, perhaps their first. It addresses several questions beginning researchers must grapple with as they decide what to work on and how to proceed:
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.
2. What kind of information is most useful for the various kinds of research papers?
All kinds of political science requires research, unless you are a genius spinning out original theoretical deductions from the armchair! The kind of research you need to do depends on the type of question and research project you are pursuing, as well as what kinds of relevant information, evidence, data, etc. are available for you to study.
Theory-proposing projects research requires the least research of all. But it is very difficult to come up with new theoretical insights without first mastering prior theoretical and empirical research on a subject (e.g., through stock-taking). Sometimes theoretical insights develop in the course of empirical research, other times by finding theories used to explain related or analogous phenomena, but not yet to the one at question.
Theory-testing research uses evidence intensively. Political scientists use all sorts of evidence: history, interviews of officials or elites, data on public opinion and any other variable bearing on political behavior, and even laboratory simulations. Researchers can often rely on evidence collected by others (e.g., published histories), contributing by scrutinizing it for different purposes or in different ways than has been done previously. Otherwise researchers have to collect the raw data themselves (e.g., going to the archives and other primary sources, in the case of historical evidence).
Stock-taking projects primarily require finding the best and most complete published research on a particular question.
Historical explanation is like theory testing research, except restricted to a single historical episode. The research required is primarily primary and secondary historical sources.
Policy analysis requires finding the best arguments for a policy, as well as existing theoretical, empirical, and theory-testing research to verify the arguments' factual and theoretical assumptions. A researcher might also engage in his or her own original deductive and empirical work to this end.
Predictive projects requires evidence on current events, and finding the best theoretical and theory-testing research bearing on the phenomena you wish to predict.