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Political Science Research Paper Thesis Template


Research Papers

Social science research papers combine the presentation of both argument and evidence in response to a core question. It is common for such papers to have a literature review that considers the work others have done to address the core subject.

Generic Research Paper Outline Example

There are many ways to structure a research paper. This is just one.

I. Introduction

State the core question; Tell the reader the significance of the question; Provide a brief version of your answer to the question; Provide an overview of the rest of the paper.

II. Theoretical Framework/Literature Review

Provide an overview of the possible explanations for your question. Include consideration of the broader literature that addresses your subject. Address your method for approaching the question.

III. Case Study (or Case Studies)

Apply the theoretical framework to one or more cases. This could involve multiple separate major sections of a research paper.

[IV.] Conclusion

Return to your core question. Summarize your core argument and findings. Discuss the broader implications or prospects for future research.

Policy Papers

One purpose of a policy paper is to make a prescription for future policies. The following is an example of how to structure such a paper.

Generic Policy Paper Outline Example

I. Introduction

State the core question; Tell the reader the significance of the question; Provide a brief version of your answer to the question; Provide an overview of the rest of the paper.

II. Criteria and Goals for the Policy

Provide clear and measurable criteria for assessing the success of a policy choice.

III…  Policy Choices

State specific policy choices. Apply all identified criteria to each policy choice.

[IV.] Conclusion

Return to your core question. Summarize your policy recommendation and findings. Discuss the broader implications or prospects for future research.

Theses and Long Projects

It goes without saying that there is no simple formula on how to optimally structure your work. Different analyses demand different frames of presentation, and the wealth of the structure types available are limited only by how creative a writer can be with his or her analytical and writing style. Still, there are a couple of key tenets that can (and probably should) be considered when addressing this crucial step to producing your research work.

First, you should always remember that when it comes to structure, the central consideration should be answering the question of: What is the best and most effective way of getting my reader to know exactly what is going on, or to buy what I’m trying to say?

Second, give some thought to the kind of analysis you’re doing. A study chasing a trend throughout history would probably do well by divvying chapters up according to time periods, or yaers. An analysis comparing and contrasting a controlled event throughout various geographic locations could benefit from having chapters go by regions. Your organization could also be more atypical than that: chapters can be broken down based on concepts (with countries or time periods being held constant), or divided according to key individuals and organizations.

Third, a chapter should capture and put forward one complete overarching component of your argument, as each section within the chapter covers a smaller potion of that overaching component. It’s more or less a follow-through on the basic idea of arguments, in that each argument can be broken down into smaller pieces which are integral or concretely supportive of the whole. Think about it as somewhat equivalent to the biological levels of organization of living things:

A collection of cells is a tissue. A collection of tissues is an organ. A collection of organs is an organ system. A collection of organ systems is an organism.

The composition of an argument – especially when we think of it in terms of an extended written arugment – very much echo these biological levels of organization. When considering how the table of contents of your thesis is going to look like, perhaps think of it this way.


The following are some examples of theses organizations, represented by central arguments and table of contents:

“Stemming the Nuclear Tide: Coercive Diplomacy and US Nonproliferation Efforts, 1964-Present.”

By: Nicholas LeSuer Miller, Class of 2009.

Thesis: “By examining the universe of cases since the Chinese test where the U.S. has made an effort to halt a state’s nuclear weapons program, and analyzing these cases within the broader theory of coercive diplomacy, this work seeks to explain why the U.S. has succeeded in certain non-proliferation efforts and failed in others.” (p. 6)

Table of Contents:

    1. Introduction
    2. Pakistan: Looking the Other Way
    3. South Korea: Coercing a Cold War Ally
    4. Israel: Half-Hearted Diplomacy
    5. Taiwan: Persistence Pays Off
    6. South Africa: Too Little Too Late
    7. Libya: Unsolicited Success
    8. India: Nonproliferation Policy Paralysis
    9. North Korea: Failure at Every Turn
    10. Findings and Implications.

This thesis has a very straightforward and clear approach; because this writer’s analysis focuses on country-specific differences regarding a common controlled event/concept (in this case, American non-proliferation efforts), it makes perfect structural and argumentative sense to manage chapters by countries.

The same principle can be applied to temporal comparisons or between concepts and events – essentially anything that has a clear and definitive conceptual quality.

“Organizing African Unity: a Pan-African Project.”

By: Kathryn Hana Cragg, Class of 2008.

Thesis: “This paper examines the history of continental cooperation, focusing on a comparative analysis of the OAU and the AU. It will argue that a particular set of domestic and international factors interplayed to create the OAU in 1963. As a result of historical divisions from the colonial age, the paper contends that the OAU suffered from regional and historic divisions from its inception.” (p. 5)

Table of Contents:

    1. Introduction
    2. Chapter 1 – Explaining African Alignment
      • Introduction
      • Part I – Traditional International Relations Perspectives
      • Part II -African Cooperation: A Unique Experience
      • Part III – New Outlooks on Third World Alignment
      • Conclusion
    3. Chapter 2 – The Beginnings of Cooperation – A Newly Independent Africa
      • Nkrumah’s Beginnings
      • The Conferences of Independent African States
      • The Brazzaville-Casablanca Split
      • Congolese Civil War
      • The Monrovia Block
      • Unity Revisited
    4. Chapter 3 – The Organization of African Unity
      • Conference at Addis Ababa
      • The Charter of OAU
      • Structure of OAU
      • Responsibilities of the OAU
      • Factors in the Formation of the OAU
      • History and Downfall of the OAU
      • Conclusion
    5. Chapter 4 – The Birth of the African Union
      • Introduction
      • OAU Legacy and a Culture of Change
      • South African Foreign Policy: The African Renaissance and NEPAD
      • Obasanjo’s Reform Package and the Creation of the AU
      • Colonel Muammer Gaddafi and Libyan Integration
      • Objective and Principles of the CA
      • Structure of the AU
      • The AU – A Security Community?
    6. Conclusion.

This thesis follows a slightly more complex strategy. The writer began by laying a conceptual foundation with her initial chapter – a solid idea if one is tackling a particularly conceptually messy phenomena (that is, of course, not to say that nuclear non-proliferation efforts are not conceptually messy). The analysis then progressed on a somewhat temporal route, breaking down large sections according to “eras” linearly along the time-line. Notice, however, the fact while the writer divided the sections by time-line, she wrote the subsections by mixing both particular events and theoretical discussions. Once again, go with what best and most effectively presents your argument.

“Rethinking Repression: Exploring the Effectiveness of Counterterrorism in Spain.”

By: Evan James Perkoski.

Thesis: “I argue that legal, nonviolent forms of counterterrorism are the most effectiveat reducing the frequency of terrorist attacks.” (p. 4)  “The goal of this thesis is to provide a quantitative assessment of the relative ability of counterterrorist tactics to reduce the likelihood of terrorist incidents.” (p. 5)

Table of Contents:

    1. Chapter 1: Introduction
      • Central Question
      • Significant of the Study
      • Research Design
      • Why Spain?
      • The First Step: Defining Terrorism
      • Implications of the Study
      • Thesis Layout
    2. Chapter 2: Literature Review and Extant Findings
      • What defines effective counterterrorism?
      • Understanding Counterterrorism
      • The Options: What do Government have to choose from?
      • Repressive Policies
      • Conciliatory Policies
      • Legal Reform and Restriction
      • Indiscriminate vs. Discriminate Actions
      • Additional Policy Concerns: Group Motivations, Structural Factors, Institutional Restrains, and Information Asymmetries.
      • Problems with previous studies of counterterrorism
    3. Chapter 3: Spanish Counterterrorist Policies, 1970-2004.
      • Research Design
      • Introduction to Series Hazard Modeling
      • Results
      • Conclusions
      • Study Limitations and Further Research
    4. Chapter 4: Spanish Counterterrorist Tactics, 1988-1992.
      • Rationale for Choosing 1988-1992
      • Event Data and TABARI
      • Research Design
      • Results
      • Conclusions
      • Study Limitations
    5. Chapter Five: Overall Findings and Conclusions
      • Using Politics to Deter Political Violence
      • Violence: A Viable Option to Fight Terrorism?
      • Restricting Terrorists to Deter Terrorism
      • Effectiveness of Policy Combinations
      • Discriminate vs. Indiscriminate Actions
      • Theoretical Contributions and Policy Implications
      • Conclusion
    6. References

As opposed to the earlier two examples, this thesis specifically raises and examines the effectiveness of a self-conceived (or observed) theory. To this end, the writer looks first at presenting and arguing for all aspects of the theory, which can be seen with the first chapter. It is worth noting that many qualifications goes into his discussion, explaining just about every major choice he makes with respect to his model.

This work also has the added complication of being a predominantly quantitative analysis. As such, it is proper that a good number of sections were dedicated to exposition, analysis, and discussion of the techniques that he used, including even the software involved.

The meat of the research here lies in the third and fourth chapters, which examines policies and tactics respectively. In similar theses, these would be the case study analysis sections, where the theory proposed earlier is applied and interacted with studied events or occurrences.

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Political Science Department


Writing a Political Science Research Paper

Political Science students are asked to write a number of different kinds of papers, including reaction papers, compare and contrast essays, close reading/textual analysis papers, and synoptic papers. The research paper is thus only one type of political science paper. It is, however, a type that has quite specific components and requirements.

The Thesis Statement

The most important and most challenging task for students writing a research paper is developing a thesis. A thesis is a non-trivial, contestable, specific claim about political phenomena that can be proven or defended through the analysis of primary source material.  

(1) Your thesis must be non-trivial

A reader will want evidence that you are exploring an important question or topic.  Explorations of the unimportant (e.g., "Canada's orange industry has been underappreciated") will not entice any but the most insensate readers. Readers will recoil, in particular, from faux theses that merely state what the author has done (e.g., "I have researched the European Union's trade policy").

(2) Your thesis must be contestable

Do not seek to prove the obvious (e.g., African American voters disproportionately support Democratic candidates for the presidency). The best theses make counterintuitive claims (e.g., revolutions often occur when conditions improve in a country after a long period of deprivation). There must be, at a minimum, alternative explanations for the phenomena you are exploring or different possible answers to the question you are posing. A good research paper directly engages these competing arguments by demonstrating that its explanation or answer is the most plausible.  

(3)  Your thesis must make a specific claim

A thesis should reference specific concepts and focus on a delimited field of inquiry.  Statements such as "religion is the chief cause of conflict in the world," "the International Criminal Court violates political sovereignty," and "the Russian people always want a czar to lead them" are neither specific nor delimited. An example of a specific, focused thesis would be "Religious divisions cause social conflict to increase in Northern Ireland when they are reinforced by other cleavages or divisions." This statement sports two concepts—social conflict and cross-cutting vs. reinforcing cleavages—that the author must develop or support in order to address the influence of religion on conflict in a specific context.

(4)  You must employ primary sources to demonstrate or defend your thesis

A literature review or a review of pertinent secondary sources (i.e., published books or articles that interpret or analyze primary sources) is not sufficient to demonstrate a thesis. A literature review is, as noted below, a significant component of your research paper, but your objective is not merely to review what other scholars have said about your topic. Your objective is to say something novel about your topic. This will require you to step outside of the published literature to mine information that you acquire firsthand.  Primary sources include (but are not limited to) public opinion surveys, demographic data (e.g., U.S. Census data), government documents, open-ended interviews conducted by the author, oral histories, archival materials (e.g., letters, policy memos, diary entries, interoffice communications, transcripts of conversations, etc.), and speeches.

The Literature Review

A literature review should accomplish two goals:

  1. Introduce your reader to the range of scholarship on your topic. This exercise can help you to provide your reader with some purchase on the complexity of your subject.
  2. Identify the most important competing arguments or claims about your topic.

As mentioned above, accomplishing #2 is integral to your effort to demonstrate or defend your thesis. You must first acquaint your reader with both the strengths and the weakness of competing arguments before you can demonstrate that your argument is superior.

Your literature review should address the most important or influential works on your topic. You will need to review books, monographs, and journal articles. Doing the last will require you to employ such research databases as JSTOR, ProQuest, and PAIS.

The Data Analysis

The form that your data analysis takes will be determined to a large degree by your choice of method or approach. If you are using statistical methods (e.g., regression analysis) or formal modeling (e.g., game theory) to analyze your data, then your paper will consist principally of justifying your choice of method, specifying your variables, and presenting and interpreting your results. Students performing quantitative analysis will need to think carefully about how best to present their findings (e.g., graphs, tables, charts, etc.). Such students could profit from reviewing Edward Tufte's classic book The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, particularly Tufte's discussions of "chartjunk."  

If you are using qualitative data and methods, your paper will need to weave your findings into a narrative that is coherent, compelling, and probative. Students, for example, who decide to use the "case study approach" must devote some time to addressing the "small n problem." This, in short, is the challenge of explaining to the reader why one can generalize from a single or a small number of cases to a larger universe of cases. What makes your particular case or cases "crucial" or explanatory?  It is not sufficient merely to claim that, for example, "there is a lot of information available on my case." You must choose your case or cases for sound theoretical reasons. Robert Michels, for example, decided to study the German Social Democratic Party to test his theory that all organizations are subject to "the iron law of oligarchy" because he posited that if power was concentrated in a small number of hands in a political party that sported a democratic ethos, then such oligarchic rule would surely occur in less ostentatiously democratic organizations.

The Conclusion

A good conclusion should explain to the reader how your analysis has demonstrated that your argument is more persuasive than competing arguments. It should, in short, explain your contribution to the extant literature. Some pitfalls to sidestep when composing your conclusion are the following:

Do not go beyond your data

Even seasoned scholars can be guilty of concluding their pieces with grand statements that are not supported by their data. You can underscore your contribution to the literature without claiming that you have, for example, refuted all that has been written on your topic hitherto or created a "new paradigm." Showing respect for the work of other scholars, even that with which you disagree, is both courteous and sensible. Take care to identify the limitations of your findings or even some of the questionable parts of your analysis. Doing this will, if not immunize your work against criticism, at least allow you to get a jump on addressing some of the critiques that will be leveled at your work.

Do not sprinkle your conclusion with "questions for future research"

This is a complement of the above. Bear in mind that you are a novice researcher. It is more than a bit presumptuous to claim that your piece can be the foundation upon which other scholars will build.

Avoid boilerplate phrases such as "time will tell" or "no one can know for sure"

Conclusions are notorious for vaporous phrases that leave readers wondering, "What does that mean?" Take care that every sentence in your conclusion is meaningful (i.e., that it pertains to your argument). Short, tightly constructed and -argued conclusions are preferable to voluble, flabby conclusions that do not advance your case.

For Further Reading

Howard S. Becker with Pamela Richards, Writing for Social Scientists: How to Start and Finish Your Thesis, Book, or Article (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986)

Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995)

Gregory M. Scott and Stephen M. Garrison, The Political Science Student Writers' Manual (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1995)

Ian Shapiro, Rogers M. Smith, and Tarek Masoud (eds.), Problems and Methods in the Study of Political Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004)

Edward R. Tufte, Envisioning Information (Cheshire, Conn.: Graphics Press, 1990)

Edward R. Tufte, The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, second edition  (Cheshire, Conn.: Chart Graphics, 2001) (pdf available online)