Department of Political Science, Queens College
to Research a Political Science Paper
Peter Liberman, Queens College Dept.
of Political Science, September 2001
1. What is a political science
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
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
* 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.