The Purpose of an Historical Research Paper
What is the purpose of an historical research paper? It is not what you might think. It is much more in depth than just reciting history or repeating what other books say. A research paper in history is an exercise in exploration and supporting theories.
Don't look at it as a report. Don't look at it as a summation of an event. It is much more than that. It is meant to be an exploration of your topic.
What is a Research Paper?
Too often, a student thinks that their ten page research paper is just a biography on George Washington. It could not be farther from the truth. Yes, information on Washington’s life could easily appear in a research paper, but just stating facts about his life is not research. It is only regurgitation.
A research paper is taking a theory and proving it. Using the example of George Washington, a research paper on him could have a thesis statement of : Washington’s military career under the British crown was crucial in helping him defeat the British during the American Revolution. This thesis is proposing a theory of Washington’s military career and its impact on the entire American Revolution. To many, this statement might be considered ludicrous. To others, it might sound interesting. They want to know more. They want to know why such a statement is made and what can support it. Thus comes the research paper.
The research paper takes that thesis and digs deeper. It lays out all the evidence like a lawyer would at a trial to support their side. It is the paper that shows how the thesis statement is possible and opens the door to new historical possibilities.
A reader comes across the thesis in the first or second paragraph of a research paper and sits contemplating what the writer is about to show them. As they read the evidence and weigh it, they could begin poking holes in the argument or find themselves intrigued to learn even more. They might even turn to the bibliography for more material to read on the subject.
When writing a research paper, you need to step back and try to see the subject through a different perspective. If the majority of people look at a topic from one stance, choose another. Try to look through a different lens and understand their arguments.
See what the majority of written pieces are on. What perspectives do they favor? If the majority feel that Johnson was behind the Kennedy Assassination, research to see if there are other possibilities. Take a different perspective and see what evidence you can find to support your thesis.
This can be a very fun part of doing an historical research paper. Even if you aren't a firm believer that someone else shot the President, you can point out other options and where holes are in the Oswald or Johnson theories. (Though Oswald did shoot President Kennedy, the theory would be that he acted alone.
Challenge the Norm
Continue the fun and challenge the norm. Most people think slavery was the sole cause of the American Civil War. Argue something different. Don't even choose states' rights as that is another cause heavily supported. Research all the Southern arguments to pull away from the Union and see if you can find another common thread among the speeches and writings.
Don't follow the crowd. Everyone writes papers on the popular theories. You want to stand out. Find something different and run with it. I have even chosen topics that I disagree with just so I could expand my own knowledge and understand the opposition better. At the end of my paper, I stated my stance but gave credit to the other side for their arguments.