Readers' Corner

Finding a Research Problem for Literature Essays

When writing term papers or essays in literature courses, students will go through a number of steps – consciously or not – on their way to developing a thesis.

Most students are able to figure out general topics for literature essays on their own without any assignment help, but that is only the first step. Savvy students will go further and ask research questions, reformulating them until one (or a group) of these questions defines his or her research problem.

What Is a Research Problem in Literature?

“Problems” in the humanities are somewhat different from problems in other disciplines, such as the applied sciences – or in day-to-day life, for that matter. Unlike practical problems (such as “How can this car run more efficiently?” or even “Where are the car keys?”), problems in the humanities are conceptual. They refer to a lack of understanding or knowledge at some level.

Although literature research problems don’t address practical problems, their answers must still be significant – especially if a student writing an essay expects a good grade. The answers to a significant research problem will help the essay’s readers understand a more important, general problem.

For example, a study of how Greek immigrants are depicted in the Satires of Juvenal (research problem) will shed light on how well-to-do ancient Romans may have felt about the role foreigners played in their culture (greater significance).

The Connection Between a Research Problem and a Significant Thesis

A thesis, in any literature essay, is simply a statement or summary of the essay’s main argument. But it can be more helpful to think of a thesis as the answer to a research problem – especially since a weak thesis, such as “Female characters in William Shakespeare’s dramas are often assertive,” is invariably the result of an ill-defined research problem – or none at all.

A good literature paper should convince its reader that its underlying research problem identifies something worth knowing. This is perhaps even more important than whether the reader agrees with the thesis. In other words, if the question has no significance, then the answer to that question has none either.

Research or Research Problem: Which One First?

It can be difficult for students without a strong background in literature to find a research problem unless they read up on the period and language of their particular subject – say eighteenth-century French Literature.

But it can be just as hard to research effectively without having a specific research problem already in mind. How can a question like “In what way did the Marquis de Sade’s imprisonment affect the distribution of his novels?” be asked without already having a fair amount of knowledge on the subject? Which should be done first?

In practice, the processes of research and of finding a problem (with a thesis to answer it) tend to overlap, especially for students. But it is vital that a research problem – even if it is preliminary, or being revised – be kept in mind as students research literature essays. Otherwise, the research, and the resulting paper, will be unfocused and get a poor grade.

The Importance of Finding a Research Problem

A literature essay’s thesis, and therefore the essay itself, will lack significance if it does not address a clear, conceptual research problem. Students must at least have a preliminary problem in mind before beginning research on their essay topics, and the problem must be identified and the research completed before they sit down to write.

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