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Writing Historical Questions

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What is a historical research question? A research question is a clear, focused, concise, and arguable question on which you center your historical research and writing.

Here are six tips on how to prepare a research questions:

1. Make sure it is a question that you are genuinely interested in. You will be working on this question all semester; your work will be far more enjoyable and meaningful if you are interested in learning the answer.

2. Make sure that the question centers on a debatable point. It should not simply be factual. If the question can be answered with a simple search engine search, is it not a research question. Too Factual: “Who invented the light bulb?” Debatable: “How has the disparity in household energy use between the United States and sub-Saharan Africa over the past hundred years affected health in these two regions?”

3. Make sure that your question is focused enough that you will be able to be confident in your conclusions by the end of the semester. Too broad: “What caused the global prominence of the U.S. in the twentieth century?” More refined: “Were military or economic factors of greater importance to U.S. global dominance starting after World War II?”

4. Make sure that your question is significant, not just to yourself, but to others. Unimportant: “Why is Mohammed such a common Arabic name?” Significant: “How has the relationship between pan-Arabism and pan-Islamism changed since 1800?” If you are not sure whether your question has historical significance, keep reading, or ask your professor or teaching assistant.

5. Make sure your question is researchable. That is, are you likely to be able to find evidence that can actually answer this question? Too vague: “Why is gender discrimination such a common phenomenon in the world?” Researchable: “How did women’s experiences of discrimination during the late nineteenth century affect when women earned the right to vote in the U.S. (1920), South Africa (1930), and Japan (1945)?”

6. Imagine a possible answer. Later this semester, your thesis statement will be your well-informed and thought-out answer to your historical research question. Don’t worry if your research slowly encourages you to revise your research question. But do make sure that your question is capable of being answered using a clear statement on a debatable issue. If you cannot imagine answers to your question that fit the bill, you might need to review your research question.

7. Be sure that your question is historical. The biggest problem that most History 105 students have with this aspect of the project is posing historical questions. Here’s an example:

  • Topic: Global economic inequality and the climate crisis (too broad, narrow by geography or time period)
  • Non-historical question (AVOID!): What can be done to reduce wealth gaps and empower the people in developing nations to reduce their consumption of their natural resources and still become economically stable? Comment: An important question, but it does not propose to understand anything about the historical roots of global economic inequality or its relationship to environmental problems. Rather, it is focused on present and future solutions.
  • Historical question (BETTER) (too broadly conceived at this point, but note use of past tense): How did the European industrial revolution impact the economies and natural resources of non-European countries through the mechanisms of globalization? Comment: This question is historical, but it will need greater refinement as you conduct more research and come to some preliminary conclusions.
  • Specific historical question (GREAT – refined after some initial research): How did the introduction of railroads in colonial British India impact local grain production and markets from 1870 to 1900? Comment: Great question. It is specific in terms of time period, geography, and industrial technology. Moreover, it is a historical question that you can reasonably answer given the parameters of this assignment. Not too ambitious, but plenty of source material available to conceive and support a historical argument.