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From Topic to Thesis

Your Topic

Before you can do much research for an assignment, you need a topic, preferably one which will allow you to produce an argument. An argument, in academic terms, does not refer to a fight. Instead, it refers to a controversial aspect of a topic which a scholar (student or faculty) might attempt to support or refute through written persuasion backed by research. The type of argument presented, the nature of the research undertaken, and the acceptability of the support often depends upon the intended audience. An article for a local newspaper, such as the Telegraph Journal, would differ considerably from one written for the New York Times. An article written for Fortune magazine or the Economist will be dramatically different from one written for the Journal of Information Law and Technology.

Sometimes a topic will be given out as part of the assignment; other times, the instructor will leave the choice to you.

For the purposes of our example, the topic is: Hallowe'en.

Now, how might you narrow / focus that and what kind of research might you pursue to learn more about that topic? First, you need to remember that whatever search you undertake should fit in the context of the course and of the assignment you have been given. Second, you might want to consider two possible research models.

Original Research
Adding to a body of knowledge by discovery of new facts and exposition, may be driven by quantitative research (producing statistics, through sampling, measurement, etc.), qualitative research (conducted by observation, document studies, interviewing, action research, etc.), and surveys.

Bibliographic / Review
Confirming previously expostulated opinion, postulating new conclusions through the re-interpretation of previously presented data/information, and the review of current/historical opinion/research, is often driven by searching existing literature.

With Hallowe'en as topic, you might begin with a series of closed questions -- questions which answer: who, what, where, when, and sometimes how much, or how many.

What does "hallowe'en" mean? If it means "hallows' eve(ning)", then is there a relationship to the day after Hallowe'en? -- after all, if Christmas Eve is followed by Christmas Day, then it seems likely that hallow's eve should be followed by hallowmas. What does "hallows" mean?
When / How did the celebration of a "day" began? Are there other historical events, religious or social celebrations which have occurred on that day?
Is the day a secular or religious holiday: is there anywhere it is a national holiday; is there an earlier celebration that Christian tradition subsumed (as Winter Solstice with Christmas)?
Is it celebrated mainly/only in countries with a Christian tradition: is it mainly a US and Canadian celebration; do other countries, such as England or Scotland celebrate similar days?
What is / was the day's original focus believed to be?
What other customs, traditions and legends are associated with the day?
What's pumpkin got to do with it?

Depending on the context of the topic, you might have additional questions which relate to business, marketing, psychology, sociology, anthropology, gender studies, literature, etc.

How did it come to be commercialized and associated with treats: what types of treats are "trendy" or "fashionable" at various times; when did dressing up become an important feature; how much impact does the celebration have on various businesses and industries?
How is the day used in advertising and marketing a variety of products?
Could there be a psychological benefit to children confronting monsters and demons by mimicking their appearance?
What ethnic, cultural and geographic differences may be present in its current form of celebration?
Is there peer pressure to celebrate the day in particular ways: is the day viewed differently by women and men; are there age and gender preferences in costumes?
Is a particular kind of entertainment associated with the day: has the day spawned literature (for example, Hallowe'en mysteries), film, art, etc.?

To answer some of these basic questions and give yourself enough information to pursue the topic as a research project, you might conduct a good bibliographic search. As you proceed, keep an eye out for aspects of the topic which might be controversial (arguable), valuable and less well-known to others, or ambiguous. Depending on the assignment and the course, once you have more information, you might want to consider some qualitative research, constructing and conducting a series of surveys and followup interviews, for example, and possibly organizing focus groups. You might wish to conduct a literature review centered around aspects of the day: historical, psychological, sociological, ethnic, cultural. You might want to gather quantitative information such as: the number of web searches conducted on the term Hallowe'en and related items in the two weeks prior to October 31st; whether the success of some businesses can be directly linked to the day (for instance, the number and type of movie rentals); or if the day of the week on which the 31st falls has an impact on the amount of money spent or the types of celebratory events which occur. As you gather this information, you should be thinking about your thesis statement, possible research questions, and hypotheses which can be tested.

Thesis Statement

Your initial thesis statement might be something like:

Hallowe'en, like many other traditional holidays, has altered dramatically in meaning and celebration since its inception. This research project proposes to look at the various factors which influenced that alteration and attempt to place it in the broader context of societal changes.

This is very vague and broad right now, because you simply do not know enough about the topic. As you learn more, you can refine that statement.

Research Questions

Research questions represent focused inquiry about your topic / thesis statement, essentially, the specific questions your project / paper / presentation intends to answer. Research questions guide research design and methodology and influence the choice of searcher, the search methodology, and the resources and sources examined and used.

For the "Hallowe'en topic", the initial research questions might be:

Does age, sex, and status influence the (negative / positive) reaction to a celebration of Hallowe'en in the workplace, with a negative reaction being defined as a reluctance or refusal to participate?
Does the nature of the celebration matter -- for instance, is it the act of celebrating Hallowe'en which causes a negative/positive reaction OR is it the type of celebration OR is it the fact that the celebration is being mandated?


A hypothesis is a proposed, untested, possible answer to a research question.

For instance:

Middle aged (45-55) female tenured university faculty are less likely to participate in workplace-mandated Hallowe'en celebrations than their non-tenured colleagues.

Middle aged (45-55) female tenured university faculty are less likely to participate in workplace-mandated Hallowe'en celebrations if such celebrations include a requirement to dress in costume.

Move forward to What Kind of Report?

Go back to A Research Framework

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This page created and maintained by Linda Hansen.
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Created: 1998/01/31 Last updated: 2014/05/06
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