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Political Science Research Guide

Use this guide to get started with your research in Political Science.

Choosing a Topic

Brainstorming Ideas

There are several things to think about when selecting a topic:

  • First, have you been assigned a topic or are you free to choose a topic?
  • Next, how many words or pages do you need to write (or how long does a presentation have to be)?
  • Do you need to include specific types of sources in your citations?
  • Finally, if you can select your own topic, what are you passionate about or most interested in from the class?

Still need ideas for a topic?

  • Scan your textbook for broad topics,
  • Review your notes from class,
  • Do some pre-research in the library using encyclopedias and our reference databases,
  • Look at some of the library’s databases, like Academic Search Complete or CQ Researcher, for current events or controversial topics.

If you still need help choosing your topic, Ask the Library to send an email or chat with a librarian.

Refining a Topic

Expanding a Topic

Once you have your topic, if you are having a hard time finding enough information than your topic might be too narrow. If that’s the case, try:

  • Exploring related topics or products,
  • Comparing or contrasting your topic with another topic,
  • Choosing an alternative topic that isn’t as recent.

You can also:

  • Consider the time period your topic is covering,
  • Look at a larger sample population, or
  • Expand the geographic area being discussed.

Narrowing a Topic

If you need to narrow a topic from a broad subject to a specific research question or thesis statement, one of the easiest ways is by asking yourself the 5Ws – who, what, where, when, and why. You don't have to answer all the questions, but should answer enough so that your topic is manageable to research and will fit within your assignment length requirement.

the 5Ws


Alternative Text

  • Who - What is affected by your research question?
    • What population or group do you want to look at?
    • Is there an age group you could focus on?
  • What - What is the subject area or discipline?
    • Does it meet your topic requirements for your assignment?
  • Where - Where do you want to focus your research geographically speaking?
    • This can be a city, state, or country.
  • When - What time period are you wanting your topic to cover?
    • Is this an historical topic or a current event?
  • Why - Why is the topic important? to you? to your class? to society?

Expanding a Topic

Once you have your topic, if you are having a hard time finding enough information than your topic might be too narrow. If that’s the case, try:

  • Exploring related topics or products,
  • Comparing or contrasting your topic with another topic,
  • Choosing an alternative topic that isn’t as recent.

You can also:

  • Consider the time period your topic is covering,
  • Look at a larger sample population, or
  • Expand the geographic area being discussed.

Narrowing a Topic

If you need to narrow a topic from a broad subject to a specific research question or thesis statement, one of the easiest ways is by asking yourself the 5Ws – who, what, where, when, and why. You don't have to answer all the questions, but should answer enough so that your topic is manageable to research and will fit within your assignment length requirement.

the 5Ws

  • Who - What is affected by your research question?
    • What population or group do you want to look at?
    • Is there an age group you could focus on?
  • What - What is the subject area or discipline?
    • Does it meet your topic requirements for your assignment?
  • Where - Where do you want to focus your research geographically speaking?
    • This can be a city, state, or country.
  • When - What time period are you wanting your topic to cover?
    • Is this an historical topic or a current event?
  • Why - Why is the topic important? to you? to your class? to society?

Changing your topic during the research process is common, and completely okay.

If you find an aspect of your topic that is more interesting or more manageable, explore that angle further. 

 

Video via NCSU Libraries. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States license. 

 

Identifying Keywords

Unlike Google and other web searches, databases work best when you enter keywords instead of full phrases or questions.

Keywords represent the main ideas and concepts in your research topic. Things to remember:

  • Each database can organize the main concepts of your research under different subjects or headings.
  • It is important to brainstorm different words authors may use for your topic.
  • Having alternate search options can keep you from getting stuck when doing research.

Identifying main concepts within your research question/topic.

Research Question: How does lack of access to food effect child development?

Main Concepts: lack of access to food, child development (words like how, does, and, to, etc. are not important)

There are a few types of keywords that you can work with, depending on your topic.

  • Narrow - can you use a more focused word or idea? (ex. brain development, physical health)
  • Broad - what is the big picture idea behind your topic? (ex. Wellness, Health)
  • Related - are there concepts that closely relate to your topic? (ex. hunger, nutrition)
  • Similar - are there synonyms for your topic/concepts? (ex. hunger, food insecurity, food security, food desert)

Searching Databases

How do I use the keywords I come up with in the databases?

Keywords can be combined in different combinations within the database to form "search strings" using connecting words like "AND", "OR", and "NOT". Different keyword combinations will work better depending on the database, so having a list will help you from getting stuck.

  • Using "AND" will narrow your search by only giving you results that include all the words in your search string.
  • Using "OR" will broaden your search by giving you search results each search term and the shared results.
  • Using "NOT" will eliminate concepts for you search results.

TIP: Use "AND" to connect different concepts from your research question and "OR" to connect keywords for the same concept.

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Here's a quick example of a search using keywords connected with AND and OR in one of the databases.

Selecting Scholarly Articles

Many times you will be asked to find scholarly articles when you are completing a class assignment. Here are some ways to identify a scholarly journal article. 

  • Scholarly ArticlesInfographic describing popular, trade, and scholarly articles and their differences. Link to larger image.
    • Authors are experts/authorities in their fields.
    • Authors cite their sources in endnotes, footnotes, or bibliographies.
    • Articles must go through a peer-review process (experts in the discipline evaluate each author's work before any articles are published).
    • Articles are usually reports on scholarly research and use jargon from the discipline.
    • Articles are typically five or more pages in length. 
    • Individual journal issues have little or no advertising. Illustrations usually take the form of charts and graphs.
  • Popular Magazines
    • Authors are magazine staff members/regular columnists or free lance writers.
    • Authors often mention sources, but rarely cite them.
    • Individual issues contain numerous advertisements.
    • There is no peer review process.
    • Articles are meant to inform and entertain.
    • Illustrations are numerous and colorful.
    • Articles are typically fairly short  and language is geared to the general adult audience.

Click on the image at the right for more information on scholarly vs. popular articles.


 

You may also be asked to use empirical articles or primary research - but what do these terms mean?

  • Types of Scholarly Articles
    • Empirical Articles - original research is conducted and the article is a formalized write-up of that research (also called primary research)
    • Theoretical Articles - contribute to the theoretical foundations of a field by forming a new theory or exploring theories in a new way
    • Review Article - called a literature or systematic review and is written to bring together and summarize the results or conclusions from multiple empirical and theoretical articles
    • Gray Literature - informally published scholarly work that is often available online and in specialized resources

Click the image for larger version.