Research Paper Assignment

Subject and approach:

Your paper should be written as a critical review of a book of your choice (please find a tentative list of books posted on my website). Your responsibilities include

1.      Locating the book (in a library or a bookstore).

2.      Studying it.

3.      Taking a position on the book’s central argument. A position should be taken in terms of one of two rival schools of thought: Westernism or Traditionalism. Westernism sees Russia as in the process of incorporating Western institutions and catching up with the West, whereas Traditionalism argues Russia’s fundamentally difference from the West and inability to adjust to liberal democratic values that are deemed exclusively as a product of Europe and its Modernity project.

4.      Addressing at least one key objection to your argument from an alternative perspective. Whether or not you agree with the book’s author, you must find a scholarly work devoted to this book’s research question and written by someone who holds an alternative position.

You will then build an argument of your own, which can be

1.      Similar to the book of your choice

2.      Principally different from the book of your choice, in which case you are more likely to side with alternative viewpoints

3.      Distinct from both the book of your choice and at least one opposing perspective. In this case you will end up building something third and taking issues with both Westernist and Traditionalist perspectives. Please keep in mind that these perspectives are not mutually exclusive and can incorporate some intermediate positions (most authors will also not use the same labels, so be creating in making sense of theoretical and substantive disagreements).

A central objective of this class is to encourage your critical thinking by developing an argument and supporting it with empirical evidence. However, you are free to choose a theoretical perspective (Westernism, Traditionalism, or something in between), a more specific theory that can assist you in spelling out the theoretical perspective, as well as the side to take.


Finding scholarship with alternative perspective is your main research challenge. It should meet the following two criteria

1.      It should be a scholarly work, a book published by an academic press, an academic journal article, or a book chapter with full footnotes. The minimal formal requirement is five fully-footnoted academic articles. In the past, I had several examples of students’ over reliance on Internet and electronic data bases, without giving enough consideration to traditional academic sources. Some students used Internet, without having any idea about the owner of a web page and credibility of the information provided. You job is to be skeptical, thorough, and truthful, and you must know the sources you are citing. To compensate for this sort of shortcomings, I am imposing several formal minimal requirements regarding your sources. Internet is a supplement, not a replacement, of more traditional sources. You are welcome to start with Internet to identify sources, but then you need to go to the library to check the sources and their relevance.

2.      It should be a work that engages the central argument of your chosen book directly and with evidence.

Often the book you have chosen will point you to alternative scholarship. However, you must find and read the work that your book is critical of and evaluate the merit of its criticism independently. Most importantly, you need to weight the merits of evidence used by different perspectives against one another in order to decide which side to take.


Here are the criteria I use in my own writing.

Statement of research question. Every argument begins with stating a problem/question and proposing an answer/solution. Get to your main point/thesis as soon as you can, preferably in the first or second paragraph. Sometimes, it is even appropriate (and effective!) to open up by posing your main research question. This grabs the reader’s attention immediately and helps to provide the required coherence and tone for the rest of your argument. Here you should attempt to accomplish two things.

1.      Try to be as clear as possible in introducing your question and proposed answer. Being consise usually helps: state your point boldly by saying, for example, "I will argue that Russia under Yelstin succeeded in building viable institutions of market economy, and I will support the argument advanced by Anders Aslund in his book How Russia Became a Market Economy.” Do not be shy in drawing lessons and proposing solutions if you feel there are lessons to learn. In this class, being bold is a plus, not a minus.

2.      Explain why answering your research question is the most important thing in the world (almost) and why, without answering it, peace and security in Russia and the world cannot be maintained, or will suffer considerably. Be brief, but to the point—it is not your job to tell the entire history of the question, but it is your responsibility to provide two or three sentences explaining the context of its emergence and the urgency of its solution.

Theoretical approach. Your theoretical approach should be clear and specific enough.

1.      It should be clear in specifying main assumptions, concepts/variables and relations between them.

2.      It should be specific in formulating specific hypotheses/propositions and pointing to evidence that would count as proving and disproving it.

Evidence. Good evidence is something, without which a theoretical perspective is worth little. We are not going to (and should not) be convinced by theory alone—it is evidence that validates it and demonstrates its explanatory/interpretive power. The key word in evaluating the quality of evidence is "sufficiency." Good evidence is related to your theoretical approach, rich, and truthful.

1.      It is theory-related in a sense that every major theoretical point is backed up, and no piece of evidence comes out of nowhere, without having some roots in theory.

2.      It is rich in a sense that more evidence is always better than less. When you can, use both qualitative and quantitative evidence and draw them from different sources to avoid various biases.

3.      It is truthful because it does not distort, or add something to what you have found in research just to make your theory and argument work. If it does not, it does not work. Don’t use it defending your argument, report it honestly, and argue from strong, rather than weak evidence.

Counter-argument. Whatever your case is, you must address possible objections, or alternatives to your argument. I recommend selecting one or two most likely objections and addressing them in explicit and systematic fashion. There are number of ways to do it. You are free to criticize your objection’s theory, assumptions, or implications, but remember that the most convincing critique always has to do with evidence. Try to demonstrate how the evidence you found are stronger than those the other side uses. Show in what way the evidence your real or imaginative opponent uses are flawed or insufficient.

Style, or format. How you present your argument in writing makes a difference. If your style is not clear and inspiring, chances are that many won’t be able even to grasp your argument. A paper must have a good title, and a clear structure, be written in a comprehensible and grammatically correct language, comply with academic standards of footnotes references, be typed in 12 point letter-size, double-spaced, and proofread.

1.      The title should be within ten words limit and must decisively represent your central thesis, rather than be descriptive (for example, "Russia’s Flawed Democracy," rather than "The Problem of Russia’s Democracy"). To get around this size vs. substance dilemma, consider using subtitles—they can be somewhat longer (another ten words or so) and usually serve to spell out your main thesis in a language that is free of jargon or metaphors.

2.      A clear structure means that a paper has an introduction, a central part (which may include sections on research question, theory, evidence, and counter-argument), and a conclusion. It generally follows the format "I am going to argue—I am arguing—I have argued." See more below.

3.      Language, references, letter-size, spacing, proofreading. Consult Van Evera (1997) and other below-indicated source for writing and footnotes’ style. There are different styles of academic writing (Chicago, Harvard, etc.). Choose one and be consistent throughout the whole paper.

My grading of your paper will be as follows. Statement of you question (15%); Theory (20%); Evidence (30%); Objections (15%); Style (20%) = 100%.

Steps to follow:

Writing a paper is a complex process that may follow different strategies depending on a purpose. A general process of writing a paper may be seen in terms of four major steps to follow: preliminary research, theoretical preparations, empirical research, and writing up.

Preliminary research. This is the earliest stage of a paper writing, at which you should concentrate on getting a sense of the subject, familiarizing yourself with various sources, exploring possible analytical points to make, and looking for a preliminary way to connect these smaller points into an overarching argument. Some researchers find it useful to look for a preliminary paper title at this stage as well. Everything is preliminary and subject to subsequent change here: title, sources, and analytical points.

Theoretical preparations. This stage includes critically surveying literature, deciding on a theoretical approach to use, and writing proposal (short preliminary statement of your question, theory, evidence, and reaction to possible objections). Allocate a week or two for making this step.

Empirical research. Empirical research is usually the longest stage of all. Here, you are after your evidence. This is a challenging, but also, many people feel, an exciting task. It is exciting, because you have a chance to see for yourself whether your approach works (or it should be replaced with a better one) and whether you are actually on the right track.

In collecting your evidence, you ought to be guided by the earlier-selected theoretical approach, but not to be dogmatic and stay away from the evidence that suggests a different approach.

Writing up. This stage may be as creative and exciting as the previous one; in fact, some find it most energizing and satisfying, in part because the final outcome gets so much closer. It includes preparing an outline, first, and second draft. Here, the most challenging part is preparing a good outline, not the actual writing. A good outline should include all of your major and most of your minor points. It serves the purpose of a good road map: it should give you a clear sense of the general direction you are going to and of the points you are going to meet on your way there. Below, I spend a bit more time on organizing your paper.


I recommend the following structure or organization of your paper (which is very similar to the one adopted by Van Evera, see below): introduction, question, theory, evidence, possible objections, and conclusion. Always begin with the substantive sections and leave introduction and conclusion to the end.

Introduction. Introduction should make three points: it should briefly introduce your question and its significance, your answer, and orient the reader regarding your way of proceeding. This is the place to say, "I am going to argue…"

Question. Introduce your question by saying how and in which context it emerged and explaining why it is important to answer it.

Theoretical approach. Introduce your theory by specifying the used concepts and the relations between them. Be as precise as you can in specifying the concept/variable you are going to use for explaining/understanding the phenomenon that interests you. Specify how the theory chosen relates to evidence and which testable propositions can be derived from it. Here is your chance to say, "I am arguing…"

Evidence. You are arguing here as well, only this time on empirical rather than theoretical level. Relate your evidence to the theory and report them one by one. Depending on the choice of evidence, they can be presented in a number of different ways, but they must be closely tied to your theory.

Possible objections. You are still arguing, and this is where you complete your argument by addressing possible objection(s). Explain your choice. Then, address objection(s) theoretically and empirically. This is a place to justify your choice of your theoretical perspective and to show how the alternative explanations are wrong or not sufficient in answering your question.

Conclusion. Here, you do two things. First, you summarize your argument and your findings, "I have argued…" Second, you conclude, or specify what your analysis implies. Why is your solution important for the world? Can your answer help to solve an important policy issue? Be careful here; a typical error is to "conclude" what doesn’t follow from the analysis at all. Do not overstate your findings, but don’t sell yourself short too!


The size of your paper and the amount of sources is not something I am going to grade you on. Normally papers of this kind come out around 10 to 15 double-spaced pages, but it can vary depending on how complex your theory and evidence are. Don’t worry about it. Instead, worry about missing some key evidence that may defend or undermine your argument. Your key consideration should be sufficiency of your theoretical and empirical treatment of the question that you address. So the quantity is of no concern. However, the quality (of your sources and your theory) is a different matter and should be taken seriously.

Other suggestions:

Start early. As you can see, writing a paper is a lot of work. So start early; do not procrastinate!

Have a point. Your overall paper, each section, each subsection, and each paragraph must have a point. Do not write just to write: there must be a good reason why you are writing this particular paragraph and why it is where it is, not some place else in the paper. Having a tight outline should assist you in accomplishing this.

Have a friend. It is very important to have second (and third) eye for your paper. A friend will proofread your paper and give you a more general feedback regarding your structure, language, or the argument.

Learn more about academic honesty and dishonesty/plagiarism. When in doubt on citation rules, consult me or other faculty. We do take cases of plagiarism seriously and do not tolerate it.

Prepare the first draft in advance. If you prepare the first draft in advance, you win time to still make it stronger by getting reaction from friends and peers and by referring to it later with a fresh eye of your own.

Additional readings:

Kassiola, Joel. 1992. Rationally Persuasive Writing is Like House Painting: It’s All in the Preliminaries. Political Studies: 14-18

Van Evera, Stephen. 1997. How to Write a Paper. In his: Guide to Methods for Students of Political Science: 123-28. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Strunk, William, Jr. and E.B. Wight. 1979. The Elements of Style. 3d ed. NY: Macmillan.

Weston, Anthony. 1992. A Rulebook for Argument. Indianapolis: Hackett, 2nd ed. (See especially pp. 66-83