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ON RESEARCHING A PAPER

Professor Daniel Drezner
Department of Political Science
University of Chicago
September 1999

 

If you are reading this hand-out, it means you have been assigned a paper that requires original research. Original research means you will have to go online or to the library and ferret out information not provided in the course assignments.

Three quick warnings, which manage to contradict each other.

First, do not go to the library, find one book about what you are researching, and assume that you have completed all the necessary research. No one book or article has the monopoly on the truth, no matter how detailed it is (plus, it really does not look good to cite one and only one source 20 times in a paper). You will often discover, if you read two accounts of the same event, different interpretations and emphases. This will give you the necessary perspective to accurately describe and characterize whatever you are writing about.

Second, and related to the last point, keep in mind that just because something is written down does not mean that it is true. Always be conscious of the biases that writers have. For example, statesmen that write memoirs rarely, if ever, admit to mistakes. Look to other sources if you think the individual did make a mistake. Similarly, getting information evaluating U.S. foreign policy from the U.S. State Departmentís official web site is like getting information about cigarettes from RJR Nabisco; what is written may be the truth, but it is unlikely to be the whole truth. Some magazines will have obvious political slants. The Nation is left of center. The Weekly Standard is right of center. That said, you can often make these biases work for you. For example, if you read a World Bank publication that is critical of the World Bank, it is probably reliable information. Similarly, if a memoirist admits an error, or The Nation says something nice about a conservative policy, this is solid information. Note the common denominator here; when biased sources admit something that is not generally consistent with their worldview, it is likely that they are admitting a clear truth.

Third, do not go overboard and read every single thing on the subject. You are not writing a doctoral dissertation; I do not expect you to have perfect knowledge of an event or a subject. Furthermore, reading too much on the subject might convince you that there are too many facts, details, and nuances to master.

Here are the tips I can give you to research a subject.

1) First, ask me if I can give you any places to start. I usually know a little bit about the topic at hand, so there is at least a fair chance that there is some book or article that I could recommend.

2) If you get a valid source, go bibliography-hunting. Most scholarly books and/or articles will use footnotes and bibliographies to say where they got their information. If you need more detail, or if the cited source is more narrowly focused on your topic, then find it.

3) Memoirs can be another source of interesting information. Most presidents and senior officials write memoirs after they leave office (Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger wrote three books of fifteen hundred pages each). Find out who the important U.S. policymakers were during the time in question, and check them out. Look through the book index to see where exactly they will discuss the events that concern you.

Note that the more recent your topic, the fewer memoirs you will be able to access.

4) Political science and history journals will often have relevant articles on your subject matter. They have the added advantage of looking at the problem in question from an analytical perspective, which is what you should be doing. Even with the computer search, it is often worth it to simply check the journals of the last five years and see if there is anything worth looking.

Important political science and international relations journals include the American Political Science Review, American Journal of Political Science, Annual Review of Political Science, International Organization, International Security, International Studies Quarterly, International Studies Review, Journal of Conflict Resolution, Security Studies, and World Politics. For straight history, there is the American Historical Review, Diplomatic History, and Diplomacy and Statecraft.

There is another category of journals that are less technical and focus primarily on current events in foreign policy. Looking through these journals around the time of your subject matter can give you impressions both of what happened and, just as important, what people expected to happen. These journals include Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, The Washington Quarterly, World Policy Journal, International Affairs, Survival, and The National Interest.

6) Newspapers and news magazines can be useful as well, particularly if you have chosen a recent event and there are no books on the subject. In addition to the computer searches, check out the indexes of the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Washington Post, Christian Science Monitor, and Financial Times. Relevant magazines would include Newsweek, The Economist, Time, The New Republic, National Journal, Slate, and U.S. News and World Report. The Reader's Guide to Periodical Literature compiles a yearly index of these and other magazines not covered by the computer.

7) Official government documents can be had in the Government Documents repository in the library. U.S. congressional hearings, executive branch reports, public affairs documents, and the like can be obtained here. There is also a fair amount of material from international organizations such as the IMF, World Bank, European Union, and Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development. In particular, if you are looking for some kind of statistic or set of statistics, they will often be found here. However, relying solely on an organization's official documentation when writing a paper about the organization would be a monumentally stupid move.

8) Finally, there is the World Wide Web. I suspect that students are better versed in the mysteries of Googling than I. On this front, all I will say is, BE VERY CAREFUL HERE. On the one hand, the Web can be a valuable source of information. On the other hand, anyone can put anything on the Web, including stuff that is not true. Generally, think of the Web as an odd mix of a card catalog and public relations junk. It is more useful as a guide on where to find information rather than a source of first-hand information. You can cite html sites as a source of information, but you had better be veeeerrrrry sure of the site's reliability. Web sites run by the government (The White House), major media outlets (CNN), and think tanks (The Institute for International Economics) are probably trustworthy. Remember, however, that each of these sites will have their biases. You will not find the U.S. State Department web site critical of U.S. foreign policy, for example. And again, be careful of websites that look like they were written by crackpots. Sober-looking sites claiming the United Nations is using black helicopters to assist communists in the United States, or newspapers that look professional but claim that the Trilateral Commission controls the United States usually have no real evidence to support their claims.

For a useful start in finding reliable international relations resources on the web, click here.

Good luck!

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