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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

Offers detailed guidance on how to develop, organize, and write a college-level research paper in the social and behavioral sciences.

Importance of...

It is often the case that a research problem, even one assigned by your professor, interests you because it relates to a current issue in the news or it reflects something you have very recently experienced. Choosing a research problem that connects to current affairs is an excellent way to remain engaged in the topic because it's happening now and a definitive outcome has yet to be determined. However, you could experience a number of problems if your topic focuses on a very recent issue or event, including the following:

  1. It can be difficult to find scholarly sources and, as a consequence, your study may be considered less rigorous and valid because it does not cite research studies that provide in-depth analysis of the topic.
  2. Examination of a very recent event or issue may force you to draw upon historical precedents in order to frame the research problem effectively. As a consequence, the scholarly sources supporting your arguments end up being more about the historical precedents than the current research problem.
  3. The consequences or results of a current event or issue have yet to be determined and, therefore, any conclusions or recommendations presented in your paper may be rendered less relevant as things unfold.
  4. A current issue or event is rarely a static unit of analysis; it is more like a moving target. Given this, it can be difficult to focus on a specific research problem related to the topic because its relevance or importance may diminish over time due to unforeseen circumstances, while at the same time, new and significant topics may emerge instead that are outside the scope of the original problem.

Booth, Wayne C. The Craft of Research. Fourth edition. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2016; Wang, Gabe T. and Keumjae Park. Student Research and Report Writing: From Topic Selection to the Complete Paper. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016.

Strategies for Extending the Timeliness of the Research Topic

An indication that the timeliness of a research problem is too current would be if the only information you find are press releases from news service organizations like the Associated Press, articles from popular magazines and newspapers, online sources like blogs, and other non-scholarly sources.

Depending on the assignment, relying on non-scholarly sources may be acceptable, but most often, professors require you to cite scholarly research studies to support your analysis. However, in the social sciences, research submitted for publication frequently takes more than a year between editorial review of a manuscript to when the study is finally published. In response to this, many journal publishers provide online access to what is termed "pre-prints." These are essentially online versions of the final draft of a manuscript and, thus, should not be considered the authoritative copy of an article [unless it has been designated as the "final copy"]. Given these factors, it will often be difficult, or perhaps impossible, to locate scholarly research studies about a current issue or a newly emerging event.

The obvious solution is to choose a different research problem to investigate. However, do not abandon your topic if it is of particular interest to you because there are several strategies you can use to find scholarly or research-level analysis.

1.  Look for related literature that provides the opportunity to conduct a comparative analysis. For example, only now are scholarly studies emerging that investigate the impact and possible significance of Russia's invasion of Ukraine. However, by reviewing the research literature about past Russian incursions in Georgia and Syria, for example, you can extrapolate key lessons learned or identify new ways of understanding the central research problem associated with the current, emerging event.

2.  Locate opinions/statements of prominent authors and scholars. Leading researchers are often called upon by mass media news organizations, editors of leading newspapers, and other print and online media outlets to comment and provide insight about an issue or during and immediately after an event. For example, in the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, many prominent experts on disaster management and recovery were interviewed and asked to comment on how New Orleans should be rebuilt. Although these sources did not constitute a body of scholarly research because they were not peer-reviewed or may not have included references to sources, the writings of leading scholars can be considered authoritative because they represent the opinions and observations of experts who have gained in-depth knowledge of the topic as a result of conducting prior research.

3.  Identify research centers and special interest organizations that focus on studying current issues and events. Research centers, special interest, and non-governmental organizations often lead the effort to study and publish in-depth reports about a current issue or event. In the case of research centers, this is because their purpose is to bring together scholars and practitioners who have interdisciplinary expertise in a particular area of study. Special interest groups are often proactive in studying current issues because their mission is to influence policy or to promote a specific social or economic agenda. Although often written by experts, it is important to note that some research institutes and special interest groups are privately funded and, therefore, you should pay particular attention to the possibility of bias in their analysis or recommendations. A good source for identifying research centers and special interest organizations is the Gale Directory Library database.

4.  Look for Congressional Hearings and government agency reports. Congress often holds hearings shortly after an important or quickly evolving event [e.g., global pandemic recovery] or about a very new topic of public interest [e.g., January 6th Capitol attack]. Although politically-driven, testimonies before Congressional committees are often presented by leading scholars and experts in the field who provide detailed explanation and analysis of an issue. However, unlike the opinions of experts published in newspapers and other media outlets, the testimony of witnesses during Congressional hearings are legally valid because they are under oath. Published hearings often include additional documents submitted by members "for the record" that could be considered authoritative. In addition to Congress, many governmental agencies issue reports produced by experts in the field. To locate Congressional hearings GO HERE. To locate documents issued by government agencies, GO HERE.

Booth, Wayne C. The Craft of Research. Fourth edition. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2016; Wang, Gabe T. and Keumjae Park. Student Research and Report Writing: From Topic Selection to the Complete Paper. Malden, MA: Wiley Blackwell, 2016.

Writing Tip

Abductive Reasoning and the Timeliness of Thoughtful Speculation

Abductive reasoning refers to determining the most plausible explanation of something based on limited information. In the case of examining very current research problems, information is limited by the lack of a coherent outcome that can be evaluated and its significance effectively measured. Given this, investigations of current research problems often require you to rely predominantly on the direct and uninterpreted analyses of authoritative sources published in primary source materials. Studies of non-current research problems are generally published in scholarly secondary sources. However, because there may be little, if any, prior research of current issues or events, there is more freedom to apply abductive reasoning to explain possible consequences, solutions, or outcomes. This is not to say that can you ignore related research or delve into idle speculation; your conclusions must be grounded in reality and available evidence, even if that evidence is not peer reviewed. However, the lens through which you interpret current research problems does not have to be designed so rigidly around prior research because it simply may not exist. The opportunity to apply abductive reasoning can be an especially engaging feature of current topic investigations that is generally not available to you in studies that must build upon prior scholarly research.

Labaree, Robert V. and Ross Scimeca. "Confronting the “I Don’t Know”: A Philosophical Consideration of Applying Abductive Reasoning to Library Practice." Library Quarterly 91 (January 2021): 80-112; Tavory, Iddo and Stefan Timmermans. Abductive Analysis: Theorizing Qualitative Research. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2014; Walton, Douglas. Abductive Reasoning. Tuscaloosa, AL: The University of Alabama Press, 2013.