The best subjects for investigation in research

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The best subjects for investigation in research papers come out of the reading of historical monographs. They are the questions that remain in your mind when you have thought deeply about what a book says and what it leaves unsaid. Ask yourself if it might be possible to answer these questions, and how you would go about it. What sort of evidence—what sort of documents or records—would be required to answer the question? Are they available to you, and do you have the necessary skills (the ability to read a foreign language, for example) to make use of them? If you can answer yes to these last two questions, you are in a position to begin some prelim- inary research. Seek out the documents you have identified and see if they do seem to contribute new insights into the problem you have defined. This initial research should result in the formulation of a provisional thesis for your paper. This is the initial formulation of the original argument that you hope to make with your re- search. Before you get too far in the research, it is advisable to look at other secondary works—other books and arti- cles—on the general subject that you are researching. Have other people already looked at the problem you have defined for yourself? If so, what have they said about it? If they have already written exactly what you had in mind to say, you had better give up on the project now. You don’t want just to repeat what someone else has already said, especially if they have said it as well or perhaps even better than you can. If they have said some- thing related to your thesis but different from it, you need to take their argument into consideration. Evaluate it, learn from it. Does it confirm your thesis, contradict it, or modify it in some way? Does the author use sources that you have not looked at but might find useful? Your thesis will continue to evolve as you read more primary sources and secondary materials. Try to keep an open mind as you evaluate evidence. You want to prove your thesis. This means not just arguing for it but mak- ing it as solid as possible—as free from oversights and potential contradictions. These are the challenges but also the rewards of original historical research. 6
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Finding a Topic: An Example In Salem Possessed: The Social Origins of Witchcraft, Paul Boyer and Stephen Nissenbaum argue that minister Samuel Parris provoked much of the factionalism that divided Salem and created a hostile atmosphere in which accusations of witchcraft could arise. One of Boyer and Nissenbaum’s arguments here is that Parris, a failed merchant, obsessively denounced commercial activity and preoccupation with worldly affairs in his sermons, thereby exacerbating tensions already present between the prosperous mercantile society of Salem Town and the poorer agrarian residents of Salem Village. “The attraction which the mercantile world still held for [Parris],” the authors argue, “is revealed by the frequency with which he introduced commercial images into his ser- mons” (p. 162).
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  • Winter '14
  • History, Passive voice, Writer, Thesis or dissertation

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