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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper

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A research problem is the main organizing principle guiding the analysis of your paper. The problem under investigation offers us an occasion for writing and a focus that governs what we want to say. It represents the core subject matter of scholarly communication, and the means by which we arrive at other topics of conversations and the discovery of new knowledge and understanding.

Do not assume that identifying a research problem to investigate will be a quick and easy task! You should be thinking about it at the start of the course. There are generally three ways you are asked to write about a research problem: 1) your professor provides you with a general topic from which you study a particular aspect; 2) your professor provides you with a list of possible topics to study and you choose a topic from that list; or, 3) your professor leaves it up to you to choose a topic and you only have to obtain permission to write about it before beginning your investigation. Here are some strategies for getting started for each scenario.

I.  How To Begin:  You are given the topic to write about

Step 1Identify concepts and terms that make up the topic statement. For example, your professor wants the class to focus on the following research problem: “Is the European Union a credible security actor with the capacity to contribute to confronting global terrorism?” The main concepts is this problem are: European Union, security, global terrorism, credibility [hint: focus on identifying proper nouns, nouns or noun phrases, and action verbs in the assignment description].

Step 2Review related literature to help refine how you will approach examining the topic and finding a way to analyze it. You can begin by doing any or all of the following: reading through background information from materials listed in your course syllabus; searching the USC Libraries Catalog to find a recent book on the topic and, if appropriate, more specialized works about the topic; conducting a preliminary review of the research literature using multidisciplinary databases such as ProQuest or subject-specific databases from the “By Subject Area” drop down menu located above the list of databases.

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