1 Ditaxe

History Essay Thesis Examples For Research

1. How do I pick a topic?
2. But I can't find any material...
3. Help! How do I put this together? Research Guide and Writing Guide

See also Robert Pearce's How to Write a Good History Essay 

1. How do I pick a topic?

Picking a topic is perhaps the most important step in writing a research paper. To do it well requires several steps of refinement. First you have to determine a general area in which you have an interest (if you aren't interested, your readers won't be either). You do not write a paper "about the Civil War," however, for that is such a large and vague concept that the paper will be too shallow or you will be swamped with information. The next step is to narrow your topic. Are you interested in comparison? battles? social change? politics? causes? biography? Once you reach this stage try to formulate your research topic as a question. For example, suppose that you decide to write a paper on the use of the films of the 1930's and what they can tell historians about the Great Depression. You might turn that into the following question: "What are the primary values expressed in films of the 1930's?" Or you might ask a quite different question, "What is the standard of living portrayed in films of the 1930's?" There are other questions, of course, which you could have asked, but these two clearly illustrate how different two papers on the same general subject might be. By asking yourself a question as a means of starting research on a topic you will help yourself find the answers. You also open the door to loading the evidence one way or another. It will help you decide what kinds of evidence might be pertinent to your question, and it can also twist perceptions of a topic. For example, if you ask a question about economics as motivation, you are not likely to learn much about ideals, and vice versa.


2. But I can't find any material...

No one should pick a topic without trying to figure out how one could discover pertinent information, nor should anyone settle on a topic before getting some background information about the general area. These two checks should make sure your paper is in the realm of the possible. The trick of good research is detective work and imaginative thinking on how one can find information. First try to figure out what kinds of things you should know about a topic to answer your research question. Are there statistics? Do you need personal letters? What background information should be included? Then if you do not know how to find that particular kind of information, ASK. A reference librarian or professor is much more likely to be able to steer you to the right sources if you can ask a specific question such as "Where can I find statistics on the number of interracial marriages?" than if you say "What can you find on racial attitudes?"

Use the footnotes and bibliographies of general background books as well as reference aids to lead you to special studies. If Carleton does not have the books or sources you need, try ordering through the library minitex. Many sources are also available on-line.

As your research paper takes shape you will find that you need background on people, places, events, etc. Do not just rely on some general survey for all of your background. Check the several good dictionaries of biography for background on people, or see if there is a standard book-length biography. If you are dealing with a legal matter check into the background of the judges who make the court decision and the circumstances surrounding the original incident or law. Try looking for public opinions in newspapers of the time. In other words, each bit of information you find should open the possibility of other research paths.

Learn to use several research techniques. You cannot count on a good research paper coming from browsing on one shelf at the library. A really pertinent book may be hidden in another section of the library due to classification quirks. The Readers' Guide (Ref. A13 .R4) is not the only source for magazine articles, nor the card catalog for books. There are whole books which are listings of other books on particular topics. There are specialized indexes of magazine articles. Modern History Journals are indexed in the Social Studies and Humanities Index (Ref. A13 .R282) before 1976 After 1976 use the Social Sciences Index (REF A13 .S62) and the Humanities Index (Ref. A13 .H85). See also Historical Abstracts (Ref. D1 .H5). Reference Librarians would love to help you learn to use these research tools. It pays to browse in the reference room at the library and poke into the guides which are on the shelves. It also pays to browse the Internet.


3. Help! How do I put this together?

A. Research Guide
B. Writing Guide


RESEARCH GUIDE

A. Preliminary Research:
If you do not already have a general background on your topic, get the most recent good general source on the topic and read it for general orientation. On the basis of that reading formulate as clearly focused question as you can. You should generally discuss with your professor at that point whether your question is a feasible one.

B. Building a Basic Bibliography:
Use the bibliography/notes in your first general source, MUSE, and especially Historical Abstracts on cd-rom in the Library Reading Room (the computer farthest to the left in the front row as you walk past the Reference Desk - or ask there). If there is a specialized bibliography on your topic, you will certainly want to consult that as well, but these are often a bit dated.

C. Building a Full Bibliography:
Read the recent articles or chapters that seem to focus on your topic best. This will allow you to focus your research question quite a bit. Use the sources cited and/or discussed in this reading to build a full bibliography. Use such tools as Historical Abstracts (or, depending on your topic, the abstracts from a different field) and a large, convenient computer-based national library catalog (e.g. the University of California system from the "Libs" command in your VAX account or the smaller University of Minnesota library through MUSE) to check out your sources fully. For specific article searches "Uncover" (press returns for the "open access") or possibly (less likely for history) "First Search" through "Connect to Other Resources" in MUSE can also be useful.

D. Major Research:
Now do the bulk of your research. But do not overdo it. Do not fall into the trap of reading and reading to avoid getting started on the writing. After you have the bulk of information you might need, start writing. You can fill in the smaller gaps of your research more effectively later.


WRITING GUIDE

A. Outline:
Write a preliminary thesis statement, expressing what you believe your major argument(s) will be. Sketch out a broad outline that indicates the structure - main points and subpoints or your argument as it seems at this time. Do not get too detailed at this point.

B. The First Draft:
On the basis of this thesis statement and outline, start writing, even pieces, as soon as you have enough information to start. Do not wait until you have filled all the research gaps. Keep on writing. If you run into smaller research questions just mark the text with a searchable symbol. It is important that you try to get to the end point of this writing as soon as possible, even if you leave pieces still in outline form at first and then fill the gaps after you get to the end.

Critical advice for larger papers:
It is often more effective not to start at the point where the beginning of your paper will be. Especially the introductory paragraph is often best left until later, when you feel ready and inspired.

C. The Second Draft:
The "second draft" is a fully re-thought and rewritten version of your paper. It is at the heart of the writing process.

First, lay your first draft aside for a day or so to gain distance from it. After that break, read it over with a critical eye as you would somebody else's paper (well, almost!). You will probably find that your first draft is still quite descriptive, rather than argumentative. It is likely to wander; your perspective and usually even the thesis seemed to change/develop as you wrote. Don't despair. That is perfectly normal even for experienced writers (even after 40 years and a good deal of published work!). You will be frustrated. But keep questioning your paper along the following lines: What precisely are my key questions? What parts of my evidence here are really pertinent to those questions (that is, does it help me answer them)? How or in what order can I structure my paper most effectively to answer those questions most clearly and efficiently for my reader?

At this point you must outline your paper freshly. Mark up your first draft, ask tough questions whether your argument is clear and whether the order in which you present your points is effective! You must write conceptually a new paper at this point, even if you can use paragraphs and especially quotes, factual data in the new draft.

It is critical that in your new draft your paragraphs start with topic sentences that identify the argument you will be making in the particular paragraph (sometimes this can be strings of two or three paragraphs). The individual steps in your argument must be clearly reflected in the topic sentences of your paragraphs (or a couple of them linked).

D. The Third or Final Draft:
You are now ready to check for basic rules of good writing. This is when you need to check the diction, that is, the accuracy and suitability of words. Eliminate unnecessary passive or awkward noun constructions (active-voice, verbal constructions are usually more effective); improve the flow of your transitions; avoid repetitions or split infinitives; correct apostrophes in possessives and such. Make the style clear and smooth. Check that the start of your paper is interesting for the reader. Last but not least, cut out unnecessary verbiage and wordiness. Spell-check and proof-read.

--Diethelm Prowe, 1998

 


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What is a thesis statement?

Your thesis statement is one of the most important parts of your paper.  It expresses your main argument succinctly and explains why your argument is historically significant.  Think of your thesis as a promise you make to your reader about what your paper will argue.  Then, spend the rest of your paper--each body paragraph--fulfilling that promise.

Your thesis should be between one and three sentences long and is placed at the end of your introduction.  Just because the thesis comes towards the beginning of your paper does not mean you can write it first and then forget about it.  View your thesis as a work in progress while you write your paper.  Once you are satisfied with the overall argument your paper makes, go back to your thesis and see if it captures what you have argued.  If it does not, then revise it.  Crafting a good thesis is one of the most challenging parts of the writing process, so do not expect to perfect it on the first few tries.  Successful writers revise their thesis statements again and again.

A successful thesis statement:

- makes an historical argument

- takes a position that requires defending

- is historically specific

- is focused and precise

- answers the question, "so what?"

How to write a thesis statement:

Suppose you are taking an early American history class and your professor has distributed the following essay prompt:

"Historians have debated the American Revolution's effect on women.  Some argue that the Revolution had a positive effect because it increased women's authority in the family.  Others argue that it had a negative effect because it excluded women from politics.  Still others argue that the Revolution changed very little for women, as they remained ensconced in the home.  Write a paper in which you pose your own answer to the question of whether the American Revolution had a positive, negative, or limited effect on women."

Using this prompt, we will look at both weak and strong thesis statements to see how successful thesis statements work.

1. A successful thesis statement makes an historical argument. It does not announce the topic of your paper or simply restate the paper prompt.

Weak Thesis: The Revolution had little effect on women because they remained ensconced in the home.

While this thesis does take a position, it is problematic because it simply restates the prompt.  It needs to be more specific about how the Revolution had a limited effect on women and why it mattered that women remained in the home.

Revised Thesis: The Revolution wrought little political change in the lives of women because they did not gain the right to vote or run for office.  Instead, women remained firmly in the home, just as they had before the war, making their day-to-day lives look much the same.

This revision is an improvement over the first attempt because it states what standards the writer is using to measure change (the right to vote and run for office) and it shows why women remaining in the home serves as evidence of limited change (because their day-to-day lives looked the same before and after the war).  However, it still relies too heavily on the information given in the prompt, simply saying that women remained in the home.  It needs to make an argument about some element of the war's limited effect on women.  This thesis requires further revision.

Strong Thesis: While the Revolution presented women unprecedented opportunities to participate in protest movements and manage their family's farms and businesses, it ultimately did not offer lasting political change, excluding women from the right to vote and serve in office.

This is a stronger thesis because it complicates the information in the prompt.  The writer admits that the Revolution gave women important new opportunities, but argues that, in the end, it led to no substantial change.  This thesis recognizes the complexity of the issue, conceding that the Revolution had both positive and negative effects for women, but that the latter outweighed the former.  Remember that it will take several rounds of revision to craft a strong thesis, so keep revising until your thesis articulates a thoughtful and compelling argument.

2.  A succesful thesis statement takes a position that requires defending. Your argument should not be an obvious or irrefutable assertion.  Rather, make a claim that requires supporting evidence.

Weak Thesis: The Revolutionary War caused great upheaval in the lives of American women.

Few would argue with the idea that war brings upheaval.  Your thesis needs to be debatable:  it needs to make a claim against which someone could argue.  Your job throughout the paper is to provide evidence in support of your own case.  Here is a revised version:

Strong Thesis: The Revolution caused particular upheaval in the lives of women.  With men away at war, women took on full responsibility for running households, farms, and businesses.  As a result of their increased involvement during the war, many women were reluctant to give up their new-found responsibilities after the fighting ended.

This is a stronger thesis because it says exactly what kind of upheaval the war wrought, and it makes a debatable claim.  For example, a counterargument might be that most women were eager to return to the way life was before the war and thus did not try to usurp men's role on the home front.  Or, someone could argue that women were already active in running households, farms, and businesses before the war, and thus the war did not mark a significant departure.  Any compelling thesis will have counterarguments.  Writers try to show that their arguments are stronger than the counterarguments that could be leveled against them.

3.  A successful thesis statement is historically specific. It does not make a broad claim about "American society" or "humankind," but is grounded in a particular historical moment.

Weak Thesis: The Revolution had a negative impact on women because of the prevailing problem of sexism.

Sexism is a vague word that can mean different things in different times and places.  In order to answer the question and make a compelling argument, this thesis needs to explain exactly what attitudes toward women were in early America, and how those attitudes negatively affected women in the Revolutionary period.

Strong Thesis: The Revolution had a negative impact on women because of the belief that women lacked the rational faculties of men.  In a nation that was to be guided by reasonable republican citizens, women were imagined to have no place in politics and were thus firmly relegated to the home.

This thesis is stronger because it narrows in on one particular and historically specific attitude towards women:  the assumption that women had less ability to reason than men.  While such attitudes toward women have a long history, this thesis must locate it in a very specific historical moment, to show exactly how it worked in revolutionary America.

4.  A successful thesis statement is focused and precise. You need to be able to support it within the bounds of your paper.

Weak Thesis: The Revolution led to social, political, and economic change for women.

This thesis addresses too large of a topic for an undergraduate paper.  The terms "social," "political," and "economic" are too broad and vague for the writer to analyze them thoroughly in a limited number of pages.  The thesis might focus on one of those concepts, or it might narrow the emphasis to some specific features of social, political, and economic change.

Strong Thesis: The Revolution paved the way for important political changes for women.  As "Republican Mothers," women contributed to the polity by raising future citizens and nurturing virtuous husbands.  Consequently, women played a far more important role in the new nation's politics than they had under British rule.

This thesis is stronger because it is more narrow, and thus allows the writer to offer more in-depth analysis.  It states what kind of change women expected (political), how they experienced that change (through Republican Motherhood), and what the effects were (indirect access to the polity of the new nation).

5.  A successful thesis statement answers the question, "so what?" It explains to your reader why your argument is historically significant.  It is not a list of ideas you will cover in your paper;  it explains why your ideas matter.

Weak Thesis: The Revolution had a positive effect on women because it ushered in improvements in female education, legal standing, and economic opportunity.

This thesis is off to a strong start, but it needs to go one step further by telling the reader why changes in these three areas mattered.  How did the lives of women improve because of developments in education, law, and economics?  What were women able to do with these advantages?  Obviously the rest of the paper will answer these questions, but the thesis statement needs to give some indication of why these particular changes mattered.

Strong Thesis: The Revolution had a positive impact on women because it ushered in improvements in female education, legal standing, and economic opportunity.  Progress in these three areas gave women the tools they needed to carve out lives beyond the home, laying the foundation for the cohesive feminist movement that would emerge in the mid-nineteenth century.

This is a stronger thesis because it goes beyond offering a list of changes for women, suggesting why improvements in education, the law, and economics mattered.  It outlines the historical significance of these changes:  they helped women build a cohesive feminist movement in the nineteenth century.

Thesis Checklist

When revising your thesis, check it against the following guidelines:

1.  Does my thesis make an historical argument?

2.  Does my thesis take a position that requires defending?

3.  Is my thesis historically specific?

4.  Is my thesis focused and precise?

5.  Does my thesis answer the question, "so what?"

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