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History 100 (Malloy): Research Questions

The Historian's Craft

Asking Who, What, Where, When, Why, & How Questions

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" (Williams 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.

Quizzical Cats

Too Broad, Too Narrow, Just Right

It's normal to start out broadly.

Pre-research and exploring is the crucial first step when developing your research proposal. While you may have an idea or topic of interest in mind, the research question isn't a question you make up at the top of your head. You will need to do some reading to find an angle to pursue, and, even then, your question may change as you find more information. Let your question be guided by research.

I recommend digging into both secondary and primary sources to see what kinds of ideas you might be able to pursue before actually writing what you propose to research.

Too broad: African Americans and the Civil War

  • It may be a broad topic that interests you, but this is not yet a question you can attempt to answer.

Too narrow: How were African Americans participating in the Civil War in eastern Kentucky in June of 1864?

  • How will you find sources that specifically speak to this? They may exist, but it might not be reasonable to start from this narrow focus.

Just right: How did African American participation in the Union and Confederate armies change during the course of the war?

  • This is more focused and provides enough flexibility that you won't be limiting yourself. Rather, you know that you will need to look at sources that describe African-American participation in the Union Army over time, and then compare and contrast it to sources that describe African-American participation in the Confederate Army over time. What themes do you see?

Source: The History Research Process guide from the Newton Gresham Library (Sam Houston University)