The History Research Process


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Kristina Claunch
Library (NGL) Room 223G

Research Topics Versus Research Questions

You will often begin by selecting a research topic, then defining a research question within this topic to investigate. What's the difference?

A simple topic is too broad. For example:

  • African Americans and the Civil War may be a broad topic that interests you, but this is not yet a question you can attempt to answer.
  • How did African American participation in the Union and Confederate armies change during the course of the war? is one example of a research question you might create from the previous topic.

Mathematical compass instrumentA research question must also not be too narrow.

  • How were African Americans participating in the Civil War in eastern Kentucky in June of 1864? is one example of a question which relates to the previous topic, but which is too narrow in scope to be reasonable.

As you explore scholarly secondary sources and historical primary sources, you may need to periodically re-evaluate your research question to ensure that it is neither too broad nor too narrow.

Robert C. Williams suggests that a research question might:

  • "ask how or why an event happened (causation, explanation)"
  • "ask what the consequences were of a particular event"
  • "discuss the intellectual origins of a particular idea"
  • "ask what the cultural context of an event was";
  • "ask whether or not an individual was responsible for a certain act"
  • "ask about the social history of a political event"
  • "quantify broad trends in a society at a particular time" (52)

Source: Williams, Robert C. The Historian's Toolbox: A Student's Guide to the Theory and Craft of History. Second ed. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe, 2007.

Additional Resources for Selecting Topics

The following books can suggest topic ideas.

Consulting a special encyclopedia in your area of history may also inspire you with ideas for topics and research questions.

Another approach is to start with the primary sources that are available and work backwards to a research question. Browse through sources from the "Primary Sources" tab (or similar). What questions do the documents raise for you? (Maybe regarding the people who created them, the culture in which they were created, etc.) Your research might seek to answer one of your questions.

Tips for Choosing Research Topics

  1. Start with something that interests you. Extreme boredom will make it harder to stay motivated.
  2. Jenny Presnell recommends choosing a topic "that exemplifies a larger phenomenon. For instance, you may be following the current debates on the changing family in twenty-first century America and want to explore what families were like in a different place and time" (8).
  3. Consult reference sources -- such as dictionaries, encyclopedias, atlases, chronologies, and handbooks -- to develop your understanding of the topic.
    This is especially important in building a list of searching vocabulary (see the next tab in this guide).

    Man standing with back to bookshelves, holding and reading a bookTo search numerous reference sources available from the SHSU Library, consult the links below. 


This list of tips owes credit to: Presnell, Jenny L. The Information-Literate Historian: A Guide to Research for History Students. New York: Oxford University Press, 2007.



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