Researchers don't magically imagine the topic and problem they will investigate.
Instead, a good research topic stems from their personal experiences, their interest in and passion for a particular place or issue, their cultural, social and political concerns, etc. These qualms and uncertainties are blended with formal historical knowledge to help the researcher find unanswered problems, and issues that require a solution.
For example, when asked why she chose to study women and patriarchy in Latin America, a faculty member in the History Department explained that this came from her lifelong dissatisfaction with the common belief that men's power over women is justified simply because that is the way life is. History is far from objective, in the sense that what you choose to investigate is clearly a subjective choice based on your own feelings and decisions. The selection of your topic or problem should be something that you are passionate about, a problem that you really want to know more about. Yet the research about these issues should be as honest, open, and thorough as you can make it and your arguments must be supported by evidence.
How can I find a question/controversy/problem of study to research?
- Explore your personal and academic interests. Write down topics and issues that you are passionate about. Can you combine some of these? Bring these to your professor and librarian. Here are some examples from the students in J400, Spring 2005:
- One student wanted to study racial ideologies. After talking to the professor, she decided to find cartoons from the Civil War that depicted black slaves and compared them to cartoons produced during the War of 1898. How different and similar were they? What kind of ideas did they convey about blacks and how were those ideas different from common ideas about blacks today?
- Another student from the same class was interested in gender. After being inspired by a reading that analyzed slave pictures in Brazil, she decided to study portraits of slave women and the gender and racial ideas put forward by the photographer.
- Do some background reading. Ask the professor for suggestions and/or consult the library's LibGuides site to see if your course has a Course Guide.
- Talk to your professor, as well as other faculty and librarians who specialize on those topics, about research possibilities. The library's LibGuides site is one place to start.
- Think about the issues discussed in one of your current or past courses and use it to develop a research topic. This is what one former J400 student did:
- The student decided to merge the topic from another class he was taking on world revolutions and researched revolutionary leaders in Latin America for the J400 seminar. He compared and contrasted the revolutionary leadership of Ché Guevara and Touissant L'Overture.
- Go to the library and investigate using the electronic indexes to search both primary and secondary sources. The library's Research Essentials has a good set of questions to ask about narrowing down a topic. Here is an example:
- Read and browse recently published articles and books. These can suggest topics as well as lead you to primary sources. If that is the case, then you can create a paper topic/problem centered on those sources. Here is another example:
- One of the students found a document in which slaves who ran away negotiated their return to the plantation in early nineteenth century Bahia, Brazil. The nature of the document allowed him to problematize the notion that these slaves believed that they had rights.
- Another student found the lawsuit related to the Amistad and the Creole mutiny at the Library of Congress Website and discussed how these could be considered successful slave uprisings.
In all cases, communication with the professor and librarian along with library research was vital for these students.
What have other students said about finding a research topic? (from J300/J400 students, Spring 2005)
- "The sooner you begin research the better."
- "Try to decide on a research topic as soon as possible--it really helps."
- "Pick a topic you are interested in--it's a lot of work. Good luck!!"
- "Be prepared. Do not wait until the last minute to start research--it's the most time-consuming and crucial part."
- "Familiarize yourself with the services in the library. It will help."
- "Starting early on a research paper makes the whole process easier."
- "I learned that it is extremely important to jump start the research for the paper right away. Visit the library and surfing the web are good tools to use when deciding on a topic."
- "Consult with your professor during the week."
- "It's important to start your project on time and stick with it. It's probably more work to reach the finished product than any other history paper I've ever written, but it is a very worthwhile experience for aspiring historians."
- "Starting the final paper at the beginning of the class, though daunting, was so helpful at the end of the semester when all the pieces kind of fell into place."