Starting a Research Project

We conduct in research in the social sciences to better understand the world around us.  Conducting research involves far more than synthesizing what others have already written on a subject, though that can be a useful step in the process. (See “Literature Review”.) It frequently involves collecting original data and/or analyzing the data that others have collected to gain new insights.

1. Choose a general topic

One of the first things that you must do is probably the most obvious: choose a topic. In some cases, the topic — and perhaps even the question — may have already been chosen . But in many others, it may be left up to you to choose a topic.  When writing a paper for a class, always make sure that whatever topics you choose to consider are ones that fit the assignment.

A great first step, here, is to read what others have written about the subjects that interest you.  As much as possible, it is important to find a subject that you find interesting because you will be spending some time with it. It may be useful to read a variety of different sources and to also begin to discover what sort of data is available for your topic. For instance, if you are interested in political bias in the American press, you should consider looking up books on the subject, scholarly articles, news reports, and whether anyone has collected any data on the subject.

2. Formulate a research question and thesis

Once you have selected a general topic, it is important to focus on a specific question or puzzle. For more on this step, see:  The Research Question

3. Create a literature review

Now that you have formulated your question, go back through the documents you began collecting in step 1 and search for more literature that relates to your question. For more on this step, see:  “The Literature Review”.

4. Identify Hypotheses or Arguments

You have a question, and you have read and explored what others have said about the question. Now, what are the possible answers to that question? What are the different possible arguments, or hypotheses that could apply? Typically, a good research paper will try to explore and compare the merits of more than one possible answer to a question. For more on this, see: Arguments and Hypotheses. [This will be a new section, added soon. For now: Formulating/Extracting Hypotheses.]

5. Choose a research approach.

How do you know which of the possible answers you identified in Step 4 is (are) correct?

One thing you will need to do early on is identify the elements of an approach that is most useful in addressing your research question. This approach identifies how many cases you plan to examine; whether you are using statistics or conducting a historical analysis or planning to conduct in-depth interviews of people.

Much undergraduate research involves what we call a “qualitative” approach, usually focused on between one and several cases. For example, one of my recent students conducted a research project addressing the question: “Why does Kazakhstan want to switch to a Latin alphabet for the Kazakh language by 2025?” Akbota’s research focused on a single case (Kazakhstan) and addressed a number of important factors, including Kazakhstan’s relationship with Russia and demographic change. She focused a lot on the historical processes surrounding that country’s institutions that have facilitated this change in language policy.

There were other possible approaches. Rather than focus on one country,  you could identify and analyze a large set of countries that have considered changes in their language policy. You could then try to quantify the different possible factors to see if there is a general explanation for why country’s change their language policies. Such a quantitative analysis typically requires training in statistics.

The section on “Research” discusses many of the decisions we make about a research approach.

6. Create a research prospectus or proposal

At this point, especially if you are working on a major project like a senior thesis, it may be time to put tighter a research prospectus. This prospectus or proposal should lay out the research question, its importance, and the plan you have for addressing that research question. It is a great idea to seek and receive feedback on your prospectus.

See: The Research Prospectus

The Next Steps

If you have created a research prospectus, then it is time to dive deeper into the actual process of research. Again, the section on “Research” will be of use for that.

Then, at some point, you will need to begin writing! When you are ready to write, it might be useful to look at the section in this guide on “outline and structure“, to see how you will want to organize your final project. And throughout the process, don’t forget to work with your professors and/or research advisors.

updated August 11, 2018 – MN