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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: 1. Choosing a Research Problem

The purpose of this guide is to provide advice on how to develop and organize a research paper in the social sciences.


A research problem is the main organizing principle guiding the analysis of your paper. The problem under investigation offers us an occasion for writing and a focus that governs what we want to say. It represents the core subject matter of scholarly communication, and the means by which we arrive at other topics of conversations and the discovery of new knowledge and understanding.

Alvesson, Mats and Jörgen Sandberg. Constructing Research Questions: Doing Interesting Research. London: Sage, 2013

Choosing a Research Problem / How to Begin

Do not expect that choosing a research problem to study will be a quick or easy task!  You should be thinking about it at the start of the course. There are generally three ways you are asked to write about a research problem: 1) your professor provides you with a general topic from which you study a particular aspect; 2) your professor provides you with a list of possible topics to study; or, 3) your professor leaves it up to you to choose a topic and you only have to obtain permission to write about it before beginning your investigation. Here are some strategies for getting started for each scenario.

I.  How To Begin:  You are given the topic to write about

Step 1: Identify concepts and terms that make up the topic statement. For example, your professor wants the class to focus on the following research problem: “Is the European Union a credible security actor with the capacity to contribute to confronting global terrorism?" The main concepts is this problem are: European Union, global terrorism, credibility [hint: focus on identifying proper nouns, nouns or noun phrases, and action verbs in the assignment description].

Step 2: Review related literature to help refine how you will approach examining the topic and finding a way to analyze it. You can begin by doing any or all of the following: reading through background information from materials listed in your course syllabus; searching the HOMER library catalog to find a recent book on the topic and, if appropriate, more specialized works about the topic; conducting a preliminary review of the research literature using multidisciplinary library databases such as ProQuest or subject-specific databases found here. Use the main concept terms you developed in Step 1 and their synonyms to retrieve relevant articles. This will help you refine and frame the scope of the research problem. Don’t be surprised if you need to do this several times before you finalize how to approach writing about the topic.

NOTE: Always review the references from your most relevant research results cited by the authors in footnotes, endnotes, or a bibliography to locate related research on your topic. This is a good strategy for identifying important prior research about the topic because titles that are repeatedly cited indicate their significance in laying a foundation for understanding the problem. However, if you’re having trouble at this point locating relevant research literature, ask a librarian for help!

ANOTHER NOTE:  If you find an article from a journal that's particularly helpful, put quotes around the title of the article and paste it into Google Scholar. If the article record appears, look for a "cited by" reference followed by a number. This link indicates how many times other researchers have subsequently cited that article since it was first published. This is an excellent strategy for identifying more current, related research on your topic. Finding additional cited by references from your original list of cited by references helps you navigate through the literature and, by so doing, understand the evolution of thought around a particular research problem.

Step 3: Since social science research papers are generally designed to get you to develop your own ideas and arguments, look for sources that can help broaden, modify, or strengthen your initial thoughts and arguments [for example, if you decide to argue that the European Union is ill prepared to take on responsibilities for broader global security because of the debt crisis in many EU countries, then focus on identifying sources that support as well as refute this position].

There are least four appropriate roles your related literature plays in helping you formulate how to begin your analysis:

  • Sources of criticism -- frequently, you'll find yourself reading materials that are relevant to your chosen topic, but you disagree with the author's position. Therefore, one way that you can use a source is to describe the counter-argument, provide evidence from your review of the literature as to why the prevailing argument is unsatisfactory, and to discuss how your own view is more appropriate based upon your interpretation of the evidence.
  • Sources of new ideas -- while a general goal in writing college research papers in the social sciences is to approach a research problem with some basic idea of what position you'd like to take and what grounds you'd like to stand upon, it is certainly acceptable [and often encouraged] to read the literature and extend, modify, and refine your own position in light of the ideas proposed by others. Just make sure that you cite the sources!
  • Sources for historical context -- another role your related literature plays in helping you formulate how to begin your analysis is to place issues and events in proper historical context. This can help to demonstrate familiarity with developments in relevant scholarship about your topic, provide a means of comparing historical versus contemporary issues and events, and identifying key people, places, and things that had an important role related to the research problem.
  • Sources of interdisciplinary insight -- an advantage of using databases like ProQuest to begin exploring your topic is that it covers publications from a variety of different disciplines. Another way to formulate how to study the topic is to look at it from different disciplinary perspectives. If the topic concerns immigration reform, for example, ask yourself, how do studies from sociological journals found by searching ProQuest vary in their analysis from those in law journals. A goal in reviewing related literature is to provide a means of approaching a topic from multiple perspectives rather than the perspective offered from just one discipline.

NOTE: Remember to keep careful notes at every stage or utilize a citation management system like EndNotes or RefWorks. You may think you'll remember what you have searched and where you found things, but it’s easy to forget or get confused.

Step 4: Assuming you've done an effective job of synthesizing and thinking about the results of our initial search for related literature, you're ready to prepare a detailed outline for your paper that lays the foundation for a more in-depth and focused review of relevant research literature [after consulting with a librarian, if needed!]. How will you know you haven't done an effective job of synthesizing and thinking about the results of our initial search for related literature? A good indication is that you start composing your paper outline and gaps appear in how you want to approach the study. This indicates the need to do further research on the research problem.

I.  How To Begin:  You are provided a list of possible topics to choose from

Step 1: I know what you’re thinking--which topic from this list my professor has given me will be the easiest to find the most information on? An effective instructor should never include a topic that is so obscure or complex that no research is available to examine and from which to begin to design a study. Instead of searching for the path of least resistance choose a topic that you find interesting in some way, or that is controversial and that you have a strong opinion about, or has some personal meaning for you. You're going to be working on your topic for quite some time, so choose one that you find interesting and engaging or that motivates you to take a position.

Once you’ve settled on a topic of interest from the list, follow Steps 1 - 4 listed above to further develop it into a research paper.

NOTE: It’s ok to review related literature to help refine how you will approach analyzing a topic, and then discover that the topic isn’t all that interesting to you. In that case, you can choose another from the list. Just don’t wait too long to make a switch and be sure to consult with your professor first that you are changing your topic.

III.  How To Begin:  Your professor leaves it up to you to choose a topic

Step 1: Under this scenario, the key process is turning an idea or general thought into a topic that can be configured into a research problem. When given an assignment where you choose the research topic, don't begin by thinking about what to write about, but rather, ask yourself the question, "What do I want to know?" Treat an open-ended assignment as an opportunity to learn about something that's new or exciting to you.

Step 2: If you lack ideas, or wish to gain focus, try some or all of the following strategies:

  • Review your course readings, particularly the suggested readings, for topic ideas. Don't just review what you've already read but jump ahead in the syllabus to readings that have not been covered yet.
  • Search the HOMER library catalog for a good, recent introductory book and, if appropriate, more specialized works related to the discipline area of the course [e.g., for the course SOCI 335, search for books on population and society].
  • Browse through some current journals in your subject discipline. Even if most of the articles are not relevant, you can skim through the contents quickly. You only need one to be the spark that begins the process of wanting to learn more about a topic. Consult a librarian and/or your professor about the core journals within your subject discipline.
  • Think about essays you have written for past classes and other coursework you have taken or academic lectures and programs you have attended. Thinking back, what most interested you? What would you like to know more about?
  • Search online media sources, such as CNN, the Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, or Newsweek, to see if your idea has been covered in the news. Use this coverage to refine your idea into something that you'd like to investigate further but in a more deliberate, scholarly way based on a particular problem that needs to be researched.

Step 3: To build upon your initial idea, use the suggestions under this tab to help narrow, broaden, or increase the timeliness of your idea so you can write it out as a research problem.

Once you are comfortable with having turned your idea into a research problem, follow Steps 1 - 4 listed in Part I above to further develop it into a research paper.

Alderman, Jim. "Choosing a Research Topic." Beginning Library and Information Systems Strategies. Paper 17. Jacksonville, FL: University of North Florida Digital Commons, 2014; Alvesson, Mats and Jörgen Sandberg. Constructing Research Questions: Doing Interesting Research. London: Sage, 2013; Chapter 2: Choosing a Research Topic. Adrian R. Eley. Becoming a Successful Early Career Researcher. New York: Routledge, 2012; Answering the Question. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra; Brainstorming. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University; Brainstorming. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Chapter 1: Research and the Research Problem. Nicholas Walliman. Your Research Project: Designing and Planning Your Work. 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2011; Choosing a Topic. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University;  Coming Up With Your Topic. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; How To Write a Thesis Statement. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University; Identify Your Question. Start Your Research. University Library, University of California, Santa Cruz; The Process of Writing a Research Paper. Department of History. Trent University; Trochim, William M.K. Problem Formulation. Research Methods Knowledge Base. 2006.

Resources for Identifying a Topic

If you are having difficulty identifying a topic to study or need basic background information, the following web resources and databases can be useful:

  • CQ Researcher -- a collection of single-themed public policy reports providing an overview of the issue, background information, and chronology. Also included is an assessment of the current policy situation; statistical tables and maps; pro/con statements from representatives of opposing positions; and bibliographies of key sources.
  • New York Times Topics -- each topic page collects news, reference and archival information, photos, graphics, audio and video files published on a variety of topics. Content is available without charge on articles going back to 1981.
  • PolicyFile -- provides access to U.S. foreign and domestic research reports, position papers, and other documents from think tanks, research institutes, and agencies. Updated weekly.
  • Social Science Research Network -- a service providing scholarly research papers, working papers, and journals in numerous social science disciplines.

Descriptions of resources are adapted or quoted from vendor websites.

Writing Tip

Don't be a Martyr!

In thinking about a research topic to study, don't adopt the mindset of pursuing an esoteric or incredibly complicated topic just to impress your professor but that, in reality, does not have any real interest to you. As best as you can, choose a topic that has at least some interest to you or that you care about. Obviously, this is easier for courses within your major, but even for those nasty prerequisit classes that you must take in order to graduate [and that provide an additional revenue stream to the University], try to apply issues associated withyour major to the general topic given to you. For example, if you are an IR major taking a philosophy class where the assignment asks you to apply the question of "what is truth" to some aspect of life, you could choose to study how government leaders attempt to shape truth through the use of propaganda.

Another Writing Tip

Not Finding Anything on Your Topic? Ask a Librarian!

Librarians are experts in locating information and providing strategies for analyzing existing knowledge in new ways. Do not immediately assume that your topic is too narrowly defined or obscure just because you haven’t found any information about it. Always consult a librarian before you consider giving up on finding information about the topic you want to investigate. If there isn't a lot of information about your topic, a librarian can often help you identify a closely related topic that you can study. Follow this link to contact a librarian.