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This is the new home for “User’s Guide to Political Science”

The old version:

This new version should be completed by the end of Summer 2017.

Writing a Research PaperPolitical TheoryPolicy Paper.jpgResearch MethodsLarge Projects


Research and writing are central to our activities as political scientists.  This website is intended to aid students engaged in a variety of related activities: writing a senior honors thesis, taking courses in research methods, and writing a paper for a government or social science course.

What is research?

Academic papers are not simply the result of selecting a research question and putting an answer into words. A lot of work goes into the conceptualization of the question and into considering the appropriate means for answering that question. Consider this classic question about international politics: “Why is there war?” This is obviously a broad question, but to begin with, we need to know what exactly the question is asking.  What is the outcome that we are trying to explain here? War is the obvious answer, but what is war? Are we only interested in war between countries? War within countries? How many people have to die in order for us to consider an event war? (A common answer is 1000.) Is our project intended to address all forms of international violence?

Once we have nailed down the question, it might seem relatively straightforward to get to the answer. War happens because humans are naturally aggressive, or so said Freud in a letter to Einstein.  Or perhaps we agree with Kenneth Waltz who has argued that the reason we have war is because there is anarchy in world politics. So now we have competing explanations for this phenomenon we are calling war. How do we decide which explanation is better? What tools do we need?  Is this a question that can be answered using the toolkits that political theorists have? Are the methods of statistical inference useful here? Perhaps our answer hinges on public opinion within warring countries. How do we gather and measure such data?

How to use this website

This website is intended to aid students in the process of creating great questions about politics, in formulating plans to address those questions, and in carrying out the activities necessary to fulfill those plans.  The pages on Political Theory are kept distinct because, within political science, the practice of doing theoretical work is often  different from the process of doing empirical research, although there is plenty of overlap. The core of the website is a series of pages that mirror major stages in writing a major undergraduate thesis. The first of these is a section on Starting a Research Project which crucially discusses the processes by which we make observations about the world and formulate the questions that drive our research. This section also discusses many of the things that should be done in the planning stages for a major research project. The largest section on this website is on “Research”. It  explores concept formation, the notion of causality, and a range of methods for collecting and analyzing data. The “Writing” section should be of use to all students, regardless of the nature of their approach to political science. Finally, there is a page on “Ethics”, which covers subjects such as plagiarism, and considerations for interviewing people.

Pay attention to the links provided on the websites. Where possible I have attempted to make use of resources that already exist.  Lists of such resources are typically found at the bottom of each page.

Regardless of what you plan to do it is always important to be in touch with your primary advisor and/or course instructor.  They may have advice or instructions that vary from those presented here.  This website is meant to be used as a general guide, to supplement — not replace — what they provide.

Writing a Research PaperPolitical TheoryPolicy Paper.jpgResearch MethodsLarge Projects

Website Authors

Primary Author: Michael Nelson, Monmouth College

Nicholas Quah deserves special recognition for his contributions to many pages on this blog, as does Harrison Polans. In general, I am thankful for past support from Wesleyan University and many of its faculty and students. Those include Erika Franklin Fowler, Ryan Katz, and the technical support of Kevin Wiliarty. Finally, I would like to thank those who shaped my approach to the subjects of research and writing, especially Robert Farrar, Sean Gailmard, Mark Slouka, Laura Stoker and Steve Weber.

If you have feedback or questions about this website, contact me at