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          Matthew O'Gara
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Home       •        Curriculum Vitae       •        Term Paper Guide       •        Critical Reading       •        Analyzing Fiction       •        Writing Book Reviews

Term Paper Guide

This is a brief guide to doing research for my classes. The topic that you choose will largely determine the specifics of the paper, but this format offers a general guideline.

In academic terms, critical analysis means considering the claims of theorists, governments, authorities, etc., what they are based on, and how far they seem to apply or are relevant to a given situation.

The goal of a research paper is to explain some empirical phenomenon; explanation can be seen as the combined process of describing and analyzing a situation or event. Analysis involves separating a complex issue into its different logical parts in order to understand it, by seeking answers to questions of the type that begin with the word, “why ... ?” or with the phrase, “to what extent ... ? Analysis is concerned with explaining facts by examining the causes and effects of these facts. Ask and inquire: What's actually happening? What are the causes and effects of this situation? What is the impact of the situation or event on other people? Who benefits from the situation? Who is harmed?

Thus a key factor of analytical term papers is that they are constructed on the basis of logically related layers of questions. In asking why an event took place, the paper's objective would not be simply to provide an answer to this immediate question. Rather, in answering this question the paper may be attempting to answer another underlying question; yet the answer to even this question may not necessarily be the principal objective of the paper. Behind this question may lie another question – the real, or fundamental question for which you seek an answer. Determining this core question is perhaps the most important part of the research process.

Additionally, your paper must also contextualize, or explain the historical context of the situation or problem that is under investigation. How did the situation come into existence? How fixed is the situation? What are the possible ways the situation might change? What are the causes of these changes? It should examine a situation or event as being a moment in a process of continuous political change, and it should done so in a holistic manner – which requires looking for the contradictions or inconsistencies among various scholars. A primary goal of an analysis is to fully inform the reader about competing perspectives within existing research.

Finally, part of the goal is to discern what action is required of or advocated by those seeking to challenge an existing situation and create a new reality. What might those affected want instead? What might be a better situation? What can be achieved? What would it take to achieve the better situation? Which social forces and individuals would support/oppose the changes being proposed? What is the likely historical trajectory of the issue at hand?

A critical analysis should be clear and concise, it should present a scholarly assessment about the items undergoing analysis, and it should demonstrate that the writer has provided supporting evidence for each position or option.

The whole point of your work will be to demonstrate how you reached your conclusion(s).

Analysis versus Argument:

A term paper in which you explicitly adopt and present a particular position or point of view (called a “position” or “thesis” paper) involves mainly argumentation. The purpose is to persuade or convince the reader to accept a particular point of view, or a particular idea, by means of logical reasoning. In such a paper the main issues tend to revolve around the question of what ought to be (rather than what is).

You will not be writing a position paper for this class.

An analytical term paper is quite different. As noted above, analytical papers raise a set of questions regarding a particular topic, and proceed to seek answers to these questions. It raises questions in order to explain particular empirical phenomenon.

In other words, a position term paper adopts a clearly stated position (a thesis) from the very beginning on whatever subject or topic the paper is about, and then proceeds to develop arguments in support of the position; in an analytical paper the position taken in the end comes in the form of analysis and implications drawn from a logical, non-normative, and value-neutral assessment of the data presented throughout.

Be careful not to make some of the more common mistakes that some writers make in analysis:

Your emotional response to a text contributes little to an analysis, so it is not necessary to comment on whether or not you enjoyed an article, found it interesting, or found it easy to read. Similarly, how you feel about a given situation is largely irrelevant, so you should never personalize in an analytical paper.

Sources and Citations:

As stated explicitly in the syllabus, papers are to rely almost exclusively on peer-reviewed, academically credible sources, and internet web pages are not considered valid sources for academic research. The internet is a great tool which will help you come up with preliminary ideas, and it is increasingly invaluable as a means to locate academic books and to download scholarly articles, but websites themselves are almost entirely lacking in terms of academic credibility.

Those websites that do contain vetted, credible material generally come in two forms:

1) Government, NGO, and other policy institute websites which use their sites as repositories for their various briefings, reports, speeches, etc.; when using such information, simply go one step further and download and appropriately cite the actual report which contains the information – rather than just assuming that a url is adequate as a citation.

2) Topic-specific and/or advocacy websites that offer research from other legitimate sources on the topic at hand, often in a synthesized manner; your job is to do the primary research and synthesis yourself, rather than to rely on the work of these otherwise useful sources.

Papers that deal with an internet-specific topic are an exception, so you will want to consult with me about how to properly research and cite examples for such a paper.

Practical Tips:

Precisely state the analytical puzzle that you wish to explore:
What is the analytical research question for which you seek an answer?
What empirical phenomena do you seek to explain?
What is the purpose of this study?
What is the theoretical significance of such an investigation?
Why are these issues interesting and important?
What sources of information are relevant to this research question?
How does your study dovetail with or synthesize other published work in this area?
How will your research resemble and differ from these publications?
How will your study be unique, and not a mere replication of existing research?

State the general theoretical propositions that guide your investigation:
Rather than developing a complex “grand” theory, term papers instead probe a few simple theoretical generalizations and add incremental knowledge to a specific intellectual area. Research papers seek to elaborate the conditions that produce certain outcomes.

Explicate your methods:
What individuals, groups, institutions, organizations do you plan to study?
What thematic issues will you consider?
What historical time periods will you use to explore the units for analysis?
What data/sources will you use?

Generalize your findings:
Evaluate and interpret the theoretical implications of your specific conclusions. Qualify and draw inferences from the results.
In what ways do the research findings lead you to revise existing theoretical propositions?
What general conclusions can be drawn from this study?
How do these conclusions relate to situations other than those examined?
How do your findings differ from the findings in the existing literature?
What future research should be conducted to more fully understand the analytical problem under investigation?
What questions emerged in your research that merit further investigation?

Term papers will be evaluated according to the following criteria:
1. Knowledge of the literature and comprehensiveness of your sources.
2. Ability to analyze and synthesize information.
3. Organization, including the logical development of your analysis.
4. Intelligent use of evidence to support general conclusions.
5. Awareness of the limitations of the study.
6. Fluency of style, a clear expression of ideas.

NOTE: This material was taken from several other sources and modified to suit my courses. Original source(s) unknown.

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