Forming a Thesis for a History Research Paper


A thesis is an argument, a proposition supported by the evidence you present.  It should be carefully defined as to time, place, specific historical problem, and your unique approach/method to solving it.  Ideally, it should be interesting and doable for you.  

Before you have a thesis, you could form an hypothesis:  an educated guess or an informed question about your historical problem.  Its answer becomes your thesis.  Your hypothesis or thesis will shape your research, suggesting which sources you should concentrate on.  For more on sources, click here.  

How do you go from a broad subject to a narrow topic to a defensible thesis?

First, you READ.  

You need to know about the subject, and what historians have to say about it.  The more you know, the easier finding a thesis is.  Look for the key divisions, sub-categories.  Look for the important sources.  Look for the big questions.  A thesis could support another historian's views or historical school, oppose them, or clarify and modify them.  

Second, you CHOOSE.  

Limit your choices by eliminating aspects of the subject.  You might focus on a key group or person (biography).  You might focus on a particular event or time period.  You might take a topical approach, a specialty within history, such as scientific, environmental, economic, political, diplomatic, military, social, gender, cultural, intellectual, religious.  You might pursue a particular methodology, such as oral history, archeology, psychology, quantitative.  

Third, you CLASSIFY, perhaps according to my "4 C's of Theses:"  

You might look at CAUSES.  How did the historical topic come about?  It could have arisen from a sudden crisis, through ongoing conflict, to an accumulation of factors. Your thesis could argue that some particular events, decisions, actions are more significant than others.  

Example:  "Such-and-such provoked Some-Country to declare war against Other-Nation more than this-and-that."

You might look at CONTEXT.  How does your historical topic compare to contemporary events?  So, you compare and/or contrast. Your thesis would argue for its connections to similar occurrences in neighboring areas;  or your thesis could argue about unique contingencies that created your historical situation. 

Examples:  "Our-country's economic problems today match those which faced Past-empire five centuries ago." OR  "Both political and economic restraints unique to That-state's geographical position led to its eventual collapse."

You might look at COURSE.  How does your historical event unfold?  Your thesis could argue to clarify disputes about the chain of events.  But be careful, since such a thesis could be dangerously close to a mere report.  A research paper would need to show something truly new or original, or take a firm stand on a controversy.

Example:  "Although some historians have said that Great-realm's loss of said battle led to its defeat in the Big-war, Great-realm's leader had already made the fatal decisions which sealed her country's doom."

You might look at CONSEQUENCES.  What are the results of your historical topic?  Your thesis could argue for continuity or change

Example:  "This-land's acquisition of named-technology guaranteed that it would prevail in the coming conflict."  OR  "The formation of the new social class swung the election away from candidate Tweedledee and toward candidate Tweedledum."

Remember a thesis is an argument.  You must state a proposition that will be substantially proven by the facts and opinions you marshal in your paper.  

Back to Research Plan.  


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Last Revision: 2015 August 24
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