History · Nonfiction

How to Choose a Research Topic

I started off wanting to do ancient Greece, and now I’m studying 1700s literature. Weird, right? Hopefully the steps I took to get there will be useful for any of you who want to know how to choose a research field, what to do with a history degree, or even just how to choose a research paper topic! (I’m an undergrad history major working on my senior thesis, which is just a 20-page paper, but is important for graduation and often dictates future research topics).

Nezahualcoyotl statue
I wrote a paper about Nezahualcoyotl. Pic from Wikipedia.

Step 1: Assess interests

I’ve always been interested in ancient history. That’s just my thing… Maybe because I like questions more than dates! My trouble was, my Greek and Latin were both very rusty, and not offered at my school. I had rudimentary knowledge of hieroglyphics at one point, but have forgotten most of that too, and who ever gets clearance to go to Egypt? Then I took a class in Modern Latin America and realized duh — Latin America has ancient history too, and I do speak Spanish! (I’ve lost a lot of it since high school and study abroad, but could pick it up again very quickly.) I settled on ancient Latin America as my broad field, and figured I’d narrow it down later on. There were added benefits in that I had a professor of Latin American history available to me, and that it’s a growing area. Studying Greece and Egypt as a historian is kind of like studying sharks or dolphins as a marine biologist, if you know what I mean.

Step 2: Assess applicability

A year or two ago, I realized I didn’t particularly want to teach history. If I ended up doing that it would be okay, but I figure in an ideal world, people who teach kids are there because they WANT to teach kids, not just because they have nothing better to do. College would be even more palatable, but I still wasn’t crazy about the idea. I did some research into “What do you do with a history degree” — I wanted something history-related, not law school or other fields in which you get a history degree just as a generic research degree. Ta-da! Museum studies and public history!

If I was going to do museums, my choice of research field would matter a lot less. It wouldn’t be something I was locked into forever. Spending a lot of time and effort becoming an expert Latin Americanist looked less useful. So, it was back to the drawing board on assessing my interests: I’d gotten involved in Amnesty International while in school, and had been reading up on human rights and their history just because I was interested. While doing that, I read a fascinating book called Inventing Human Rights by Lynn Hunt, an expert in French history, who pinned the growth of human rights partially on the growth of novel reading as entertainment. That was a radically interesting notion to me, because when we’re talking about what I’m interested in, what do I always come back to? Books and stories!

I’m getting ahead of myself, though. I just knew I needed a new research area, and I chose the history of human rights. It interested me, it crossed time/place restrictions (I always hated the idea of choosing one research topic and being stuck there forever), and I would love to end up in a civil rights museum of some kind! I knew I was on the right track and felt much more comfortable with this game plan.

Step 3: Assess resources

I initially wanted to research how animal rights led to children’s rights. It’s a weird story: Some people wanted to take a child away from abusive parents, but there was no system in place for that. They went to animal rights activists for help, and lawyers applied the animal rights reasoning to children’s rights. This was in New York — same thing happened in England. I found this story in The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker. The trouble was a lack of sources. There were newspaper accounts that were very slippery indeed, and if I wanted to go further than that I’d probably have to get access to old ASPCA records and things like that, if those records even existed. I just didn’t have access to the sources I needed for a 20-page paper. (Maybe a blog post one day, though!)

That’s when I remembered Hunt’s theory about the novels making human rights possible. (She and her theory had also been mentioned at length in Better Angels, which I’d read for another class). A few quick searches revealed there were plenty of usable sources on the history of novels, history of literacy, history of human rights, and scientific studies of empathy, and surely with all those available I could smash them together somehow! Plus, it’s books. There’s no trouble finding primary sources, because you have the books themselves, plus often contemporary reviews of the books and letters from the author, because we authors tend to be wordy people.

Pamela Samuel Richardson cover
I wrote about Pamela for Banned Books Week.

Step 4: Reassess whatever you’ve ended up with

I took this step after I had the bones of my research paper ready. The novels/human rights intersection sounds smallish, but is really quite large, and I chose to focus on one transformative book. (Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded by Samuel Richardson). I’d started out with ancient Greece, with a more firm beginning in the Aztec Empire, intending to become a world-renowned expert in some tiny aspect of it. It was something of a gradual, incremental change, but now I was about to start an entire paper on a women’s novel from 1740 England, with the intent of going to museum school afterward. This plan was totally unrecognizable from what it had been before. Did I really want to do this?

Yes. Unqualified yes. Check off this step and move on.

Intermediary step before paper: Identify pitfalls

 

I knew right off the bat, and especially after doing my preliminary research, that writing about this topic might be tricky. It would be very easy to verge into literary analysis, or even sociology, rather than writing a real history paper. Those would be pretty interesting too, but NOT my field, and I wouldn’t be able to write a proper sociology paper even if I wanted to do that. I need to incorporate some literary analysis and some sociology or my argument won’t make sense, but I can’t let them take over the paper. Having these things written out beforehand was really valuable when it came time to do a detailed outline and research.

So, there I am! I’ve finished a first draft of the paper in question, and am just starting on a second draft. I hope this was helpful for y’all, and I’m happy to answer any questions about history major-ing or the topics in question.

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3 thoughts on “How to Choose a Research Topic

  1. I wish I’d so thoroughly thought through my undergrad focus… Rather than just gravitating to what most called to me in the moment. Though, I’d I continue with history work museum and public history work is what appeals, so I suppose being a bit of an eclectic historian works well.

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