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HIST 143H - Perry - Fall 2020: Your Topic

Research Topics versus Research Questions

Start with something that interests you. It's much more difficult to write a paper on a boring topic.

A good historical question requires an answer that is not just yes or no. Why and how questions are often good choices, and so are questions that ask you to compare and contrast a topic in different locations or time periods; so are questions that ask you to explain the relationship between one event or historical process and another.

You will often begin by selecting a research topic, then defining a research question within this topic to investigate. What's the difference?

A simple topic is too broad. For example:

  • African Americans and the Civil War may be a broad topic that interests you, but this is not yet a question you can attempt to answer.
  • How did African American participation in the Union and Confederate armies change during the course of the war? is one example of a research question you might create from the previous topic.

A research question must also not be too narrow.

  • How were African Americans participating in the Civil War in eastern Kentucky in June of 1864? is one example of a question which relates to the previous topic, but which is too narrow in scope to be reasonable.

As you explore scholarly secondary sources and historical primary sources, you may need to periodically re-evaluate your research question to ensure that it is neither too broad nor too narrow.

 A good research question might:

  • "ask how or why an event happened (causation, explanation)"
  • "ask what the consequences were of a particular event"
  • "discuss the intellectual origins of a particular idea"
  • "ask what the cultural context of an event was";
  • "ask whether or not an individual was responsible for a certain act"
  • "ask about the social history of a political event"
  • "quantify broad trends in a society at a particular time"

Source: Williams, Robert C. The Historian's Toolbox: A Student's Guide to the Theory and Craft of History. Second ed. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2007.