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Chapter2

Chapter

The Problem: Essence


of the Research Project
Outline Key Terms
2-1 Introduction problem statement
2-2 Deciding on a Potential Topic topic evaluation
2-2a Sources of Topics
2-2b Evaluating a Potential Topic
2-3 The Research Problem
2-3a Problem Statement and Clarity
2-3b What to Avoid When Writing Your Problem Statement
2-4 Topic Selection: Some Concluding Remarks
2-4a Select Your Topic Early
2-4b Limit the Range of Your Topic
2-4c Consider Duplicating Another Study
2-4d Abandon Topics That Are Impossible to Complete
Chapter Summary
Chapter Quiz
Suggested Readings

21
22 Chapter 2

2-1 Introduction
In the preceding chapter we introduced you to the systematic research process. As
we stated, it is a process involving several stages. In this chapter we discuss items
you need to consider when choosing a research topic or problem. While we discuss
research topics, problem statements, and sources of potential research topics, we
do not discuss the steps you should take to conduct a literature review. The scope
and importance of the literature review require a separate chapter (Chapter 3).
The initial stages of research are crucial. We believe, however, that the choice
of a research topic perhaps is most critical. Your topic sets the tone for your entire
research effort. It also establishes the framework for the other major stages of the
research process.
Of the early phases of the research process, the selection of a topic may be the
most difficult for us to provide you with guidelines. Topic selection is personal and
involves a great deal of originality, experience, and talent that is sharpened over
time. Still, our purpose in this chapter is to provide you with general suggestions
you can use to develop a worthy research topic.
An understanding of this chapter will enable you to
1. Define a research topic.
2. Evaluate the worth of possible research topics.
3. Distinguish between personal and researchable problems.
4. Identify faults resulting from a lack of understanding about the nature of
research.
5. Write a problem statement that fulfills the requirements of the composite
research process.

2-2 Deciding on a Potential Topic


The initial idea for possible research topics can come from numerous sources.
Sometimes the professor assigns a topic for the class to research or provides a list
to select from. Many professors, however, leave the decision up to you. After all, a
major purpose of political research is to identify pertinent questions that require
investigation. Therefore, you should have some capability in identifying and
selecting potential research topics. We preface our discussion by emphasizing that
it is ultimately your responsibility to select a research topic.

2-2a Sources of Topics


A cursory review of several journals and publications may provide you with some
ideas about potential research topics. For example, you may want to consult the
International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences (Elsevier Science, LTD, 2002). This
publication consists of articles published by social scientists. Each article describes
some of the major issues and questions in a particular subject area. It also provides
you with additional references to major publications. Thus the International Ency-
clopedia of the Social Sciences is an invaluable source of possible research topics.
In addition, you should examine the leading journals and periodicals in the
political science discipline. Examples include American Political Science Review,
The Public Administration Review, and Urban Affairs Review. When perusing these
publications, take the following steps to simplify your efforts.
• First, read the titles of the articles. A simple review of the titles of articles in
these journals will alert you to topics of potential interest.
• Second, read the abstracts that precede each article to get a better idea of the
article’s purpose and its applicability to your field of interest.
The Problem: Essence of the Research Project 23

• Third, read the “Recommendations for Further Research” section that


concludes most articles, perhaps providing you with a recommendation you
can pursue.
• Fourth, examine the bibliography that follows each article, which can give
you ideas about what other scholars have written in your area of interest.
If you follow these simple steps you should end up with several ideas for
researchable topics.
Another source of topics often slighted by students is the basic textbooks they
purchase for political science classes. In particular, if your interest is American pol-
itics, your introductory text is an invaluable source of ideas. In addition, each
chapter follows the general guidelines of a research paper. The chapters in Squire,
Lindsay, Covington, and Smith’s Dynamics of Democracy (Atomic Dog Publishing,
2003), for example, discuss the history, development, advantages and disadvan-
tages, political impact, and reform initiatives for each subject matter. The authors
also use current data to support their arguments. The bibliographic references and
suggested readings following each chapter also are invaluable sources of possible
topics for your research.

2-2b Evaluating a Potential Topic


Richard Cole offers criteria you should consider when performing topic evalua- topic evaluation: The process
tion, or choosing a topic to research (Cole 1996, 11–19). First, ensure the topic whereby a researcher analyzes a
topic for research. According to
interests you. You will devote several weeks, or even months, to your research
Richard Cole, it involves ensuring
paper. Nothing could be more tiresome than working on a project without the (1) the topic is of interest, (2) the
enthusiasm that accompanies a topic of interest. Additionally, nothing detracts topic is manageable, and (3) the
more from the ultimate quality of the final product than lack of enthusiasm. Select topic does not broach the ethical
a topic that will be appealing throughout the length of your research effort. considerations associated with
research.
Second, while the topic must interest you, it also should be of interest to other
scholars in the field. A major purpose of research is to add to the existing body of
knowledge. Your brief semester research project should relate to the context of
existing theory or to current policy.
A major question often posed in our classes is “How does one know whether
a particular topic will interest other political scientists?” One way to answer this
question is to review the social science indexes, journals, and abstracts to discover
other work being conducted in your chosen area. We want to offer you some
words of caution. If you find a large amount of material, your topic may be over-
studied. Thus, it would be difficult to add much to what already exists. On the
other hand, if you find little or no reference in the literature relating to your pos-
sible topic, your topic may be of little interest to the broader discipline, or too dif-
ficult to pursue. In either case, look for another topic.
Third, ensure that your topic is manageable. It usually is not too difficult to
conceive of interesting and significant ideas. The problem often is selecting a topic
you can complete within the time allotted and with the available resources.
Research often is time consuming and expensive. Thus, while you might find it
interesting to survey all members of the U.S. Congress about their interests out-
side the Congress, you also may find doing so expensive, time consuming, and
impractical for a one-semester course. Interviewing city council members, on the
other hand, may be practical. In sum, take time to apply a good deal of foresight
and common sense when selecting your topic. Know your own time and resource
limitations and select a topic that is realistic and manageable.
Last, you need to understand the ethical considerations associated with
research. Some scholars may see the benefits a study adds to the field of political
24 Chapter 2

science, yet others may consider the same study outside the ethical boundaries of
research. Researchers exceed ethical limits when they do not consider the external
implications of their findings.
W. Phillips Shively reminds his readers that conducting research is an exten-
sion of one’s personal actions. As such, researchers must consider the ethics of
their efforts (Shively 1990, 10). He identifies two comprehensive classes of ethical
questions researchers must consider.
First, they must understand the consequences of their research on society.
Researchers should realize that their research could be a detriment to society. For
example, think of the ethical questions confronting the Los Alamos scientists who
designed the atomic bomb. Or think of the ethical questions confronting social
scientists who see the results of their research used by the government to support
the elimination of welfare programs. While each of these efforts can benefit some
segments of society, each also can disrupt some segments of society. Shively
implies that researchers should consider all of society and the ethical questions
inherent in their research prior to releasing their findings (Shively 1990, 10).
Shively also identified a second class of questions involving ethics. He asserted
that ethics are also disregarded when researchers mislead subjects asked to partic-
ipate in a study. In addition, a lack of ethics appears when researchers infringe on
the rights of study participants. Researchers must treat subjects in a fair and
humane manner (Shively 1990, 11). Failure to do so could put undue psychologi-
cal stress on the subjects, place unreasonable demands on the participants, abridge
the confidentiality of the subjects, and mislead the subjects (Shively 1990, 11–12).
Hence, take steps to treat your study participants with dignity while protecting
their privacy. One way to accomplish this goal is to make the research results avail-
able to the participants. This action may also help you gain their confidence.
The problems identified by Shively pose difficult ethical questions for the
researcher. Did the efforts of the scientists at Los Alamos benefit more people than
they harmed? In 1946, many may have answered with a resounding yes. Today,
after analyzing the long-range impact, however, many more may respond with an
equally resounding no.
So what rule should we follow? We agree with Shively’s firm rule “. . . that peo-
ple should never be coerced or tricked into participation and should always be
fully informed before they agree to participate” (Shively 1990, 12).
Our final comment about ethics and political research concerns plagiarism.
Studies can be replicated, but not plagiarized. Remember, a goal of research is to
generalize the findings of one study to other geographical regions, segments of
society, and population centers. Therefore there is nothing wrong in taking the
same steps as other scholars when doing your research. To copy their findings,
however, amounts to plagiarism.

2-3 The Research Problem


Identifying the research problem is the first major step when conducting research.
Identification of an appropriate problem to research and analyze is not an easy
task. In this section, we give you advice to help you complete this important step.

2-3a Problem Statement and Clarity


After you decide on a research topic you must clearly state the problem you want
problem statement: A succinct to investigate. All research begins with a problem statement. A problem statement
statement of the phenomenon is a question you want to answer. For example, your topic may be voting in western
that is being analyzed.
The Problem: Essence of the Research Project 25

democratic nations. The problem you want to answer may be “Why is the voting
turnout higher in some western democracies than in other western democracies?”
A preliminary step in your research effort is to clearly state the problem so you
can take the appropriate steps to answer the question it poses. State the problem
in a complete grammatical sentence, and state it so well that anyone, anywhere,
can read, understand, and react to it without benefit of your presence. In addition,
state your research problem so that the purpose of your research is clear.

2-3b What to Avoid When Writing Your Problem Statement


Do not write your problem statement as a meaningless half-statement. Consider
the following statements, for example: “Welfare and mass transit systems” and “A
voting turnout study.” As stated, these are topics, not research problem statements.
These statements give the reader very little to go on. They also provoke ques-
tions of their own. What is the purpose of each study? Where will the studies be
conducted? Who are the participants? Following are some possible ways to trans-
late these statements, or topics, into meaningful problem statements:
• The purpose of this study is to determine the effect that welfare recipients in
Houston’s Third Ward have on Houston’s mass transit system and identify
ways to alleviate observed problems.
• The purpose of this research is to analyze and compare the electoral systems
of western democracies in order to identify reasons for differences in voting
turnout and ways to enhance overall turnout.
Generally, questions you can answer with a simple yes or no are not appro-
priate research problems. Research problems must delve deeply into the subject.
You must concern yourself with the qualitative differences that distinguish one sit-
uation from another. As a result, simple studies about a particular individual,
company, or event are not research because data analysis and interpretation to
identify situational differences are not part of the process. Thus, comparison is an
important characteristic of research problems.
Some students make the mistake of expressing their opinion when writing a
problem statement. As a result, instead of expressing a research problem per se,
they express an opinion that they want to defend or prove. For example, “The
Republican Party is better than the Democratic Party.” A possible way to reword
this statement so that it meets the requirements of a problem statement is “The
purpose of this study is to identify differences between the Republican and Demo-
cratic parties in order to identify reasons why Republicans have dominated the
executive branch since 1968.”
Here are some final comments about problem statements.
• Make sure your problem is limited.
• Do not attempt to research too much.
• Limit your study to a manageable geographical area with a limited
population.
• Remember to consider your time and resource allocations.

2-4 Topic Selection: Some Concluding Remarks


Our discussion so far has given you suggestions to follow when selecting and eval-
uating a topic to research. We also gave you pointers about writing problem state-
ments. Before we conclude our discussion, we want to offer final hints for selecting
your research topic.
26 Chapter 2

2-4a Select Your Topic Early


Many students have a glaring fault: they excel at procrastination. They wait until
the last minute to select a topic, formulate a problem statement, collect as much
information as possible about their topic, and then attempt to write the report.
The result often is an inferior report that violates the principles we discussed. Early
topic selection ensures greater access to materials, more time to carefully formu-
late hypotheses, more flexibility when collecting your data, and more time to ana-
lyze your data and write your report. Early topic selection also, undoubtedly, will
result in a superior research project.

2-4b Limit the Range of Your Topic


As a beginning researcher, you may fall into a common trap. Like many novice
researchers you may select a broad topic and immediately find yourself inundated
with information. You may, for example, want to investigate political participa-
tion. Your investigation, however, reveals hundreds of articles and references on
different areas of this general topic. Obviously, your topic is too broad and cannot
be adequately researched and reported on within a single semester. Your task then
is to limit the topic. Perhaps you can initially limit the range of political participa-
tion to political participation in America. You can further limit the topic to uncon-
ventional political participation in America. This topic, however, is still too
expansive. Perhaps the topic of your paper should be something like “The Impact
of the 1960s’ civil rights movement in America on public policy.” Anyway, we are
sure you get the point of our discussion. Narrowing and defining a general topic
make your research tasks more manageable. This also yields more interesting and
definitive results.

2-4c Consider Duplicating Another Study


Duplicating another study is a legitimate way to conduct scientific research.
Because the goal in such a project is not to reinvent the wheel, it is appropriate to
see if the wheel works as well in a different environment or location. As long as you
replicate but do not copy another study, you are within the ethical bounds of
scholarly research. Consider these examples. The goal in such a project is not to
reinvent the wheel, but to see if the wheel works as well in a different environment
or location. Remember, an important goal of research is to provide additional con-
firmation to whatever theory you tested. If you find differences, your goal is to
determine reasons for the differences and suggest ways to modify the theory.

2-4d Abandon Topics That Are Impossible to Complete


Another common mistake to avoid is pursuing a topic you cannot complete
within the time parameters. When it is obvious that your references are limited or
your data cannot be collected, you need to consider another topic. Early topic
selection makes it possible to reveal problems while there is time to change to
another subject. It is better to select another topic than turn in an inferior paper
accompanied by excuses for your drab performance.
The Problem: Essence of the Research Project 27

Chapter Summary
Chapter Summary
At the outset of this chapter we said that, although each of provided guidelines to follow when evaluating possible top-
the initial stages of research is crucial, the choice of a ics. In addition, we gave you suggestions to follow when
research topic is perhaps the most critical. Your topic estab- writing your problem statement: State your problem clearly
lishes the framework for the other major stages of the and avoid half-statements, opinions, and problems you can
research process. answer with a simple yes or no. We also stressed the impor-
We also said that of all the stages of the process, topic tance of limiting the scope of your problem. We concluded
selection is the most difficult for us to provide guidelines. the chapter by advising you to select your topic early, con-
Nevertheless, we gave you general suggestions to use when sider replication of previous studies, and abandon your
developing a research topic. topic if it becomes unwieldy.
As such, we discussed possible sources you can review
to identify topics and problems worthy of research. We also

Chapter Quiz
Chapter Quiz
1. Which of the following is an example of criteria you 4. Consider the following problem statement: “Welfare
should consider when choosing a topic to research? and mass transit systems.” What, if anything, is wrong
a. Select your topic early. with the statement?
b. Limit the range of your topic. a. The statement is merely a topic for research.
c. Consider duplicating another study. b. The statement does not specify the purpose of the
d. Each of the above is an example of criteria you research effort.
should consider when choosing a topic to research. c. The statement does not identify the participants
2. Which of the following is an example of what to avoid in the research effort.
when writing your problem statement? d. Each of statements a through c characterizes
a. Do not write your problem statement as a the problem statement.
meaningless half-statement. e. There is nothing wrong with the problem
b. The problem statement should include the purpose statement.
of the study. 5. Consider the following problem statement: “The
c. The problem statement should include the location purpose of this research is to analyze and compare the
of the study. electoral systems of western democracies in order to
d. The problem statement should identify the identify reasons for differences in voting turnout and
participants of the study. identify ways to enhance overall turnout.” What, if
3. Which of the following statements about writing a anything, is wrong with the statement?
problem statement is true? a. The statement is merely a topic for research.
a. Do not write your problem statement as a b. The statement does not specify the purpose
meaningless half-statement. of the research effort.
b. Generally, questions you can answer with a simple c. The statement does not identify the participants
yes or no are not appropriate research problems. in the research effort.
c. Comparison is an important characteristic of d. Each of statements a through c characterizes
research problems. the problem statement.
d. Each of statements a through c about writing e. There is nothing wrong with the problem
a problem statement is true. statement.
6. According to Richard Cole, topic evaluation involves
ensuring
a. the topic is of interest.
b. the topic is manageable.
c. the topic does not broach the ethical considerations
associated with research.
d. each of choices a through c.
28 Chapter 2

7. Failure to follow ethical guidelines when conducting 9. According to the chapter, identifying the
research could _______________________________ is the first
a. put undue psychological stress on the subjects. major step to take when conducting research.
b. place unreasonable demands on the participants. a. research problem
c. abridge the confidentiality of the subjects. b. applicable literature about a research project
d. mislead the subjects. c. participants of a study
e. cause all of choices a through d to occur if you fail d. limitations of a study
to follow ethical guidelines when conducting e. resources needed to conduct a study
research. 10. W. Phillips Shively reminds his readers that
8. _________________________ is the process whereby conducting research is an extension of one’s personal
a researcher analyzes a topic for research. actions. As such, researchers must consider the
a. Topic identification a. resources needed to conduct the study.
b. Topic evaluation b. ethics involved when conducting the study.
c. Topic selection c. efforts of other investigators who studied the topic.
d. None of the above choices is correct. d. costs involved with doing the study.

Suggested Readings
Suggested Readings
Mann, Thomas. A Guide to Library Research Methods. New
Cole, Richard L. Introduction to Political Science and Policy
Research. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996. York: Oxford University Press, 1987.
Goldenberg, Sheldon. Thinking Methodologically. New York: Schmidt, Diane E. Expository Writing in Political Science:
HarperCollins, 1992. A Practical Guide. New York: HarperCollins, 1993.
Johnson, Janet Buttolph and Richard A. Joslyn. Political Sci- Schmidt, Steffen W., Mack C. Shelley II, and Barbara A.
ence Research Methods, 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: Con- Bardes. An Introduction to Critical Thinking and Writing
gressional Quarterly Press, 1995. in American Politics. Minneapolis/St. Paul: West Pub-
Leedy, Paul D. and Jeanne Ellis Ormrod. Practical Research: lishing, 1993.
Planning and Design, 7th ed. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Shively, W. Phillips. The Craft of Political Research, 3rd ed.
Merrill, Prentice Hall, 2001. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1990.