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American Studies

This guide provides general resources for starting research in American Studies.

Forming Your Research Question

The Craft of Research is very helpful at many stages in the research process, but I have especially appreciated the chapters about formulating a research question (Part II: Asking Questions Finding Answers). Here is an adapted summary of some of the strategies from this part: 

  • Identify your broad topic, for example broken windows policing and gentrification
  • Narrow your broad topic to a specific topic by adding verbs and focusing on a specific time and place, for example the impact of broken windows policing on gentrification in Flatbush in the 1990s-2000s
  • Start to think about what questions you are interested in asking related to your specific topic; here are some possibilities to help you generate questions: 
    • Ask about the history of the topic (either the larger developmental context or internal history), for example what were the NYPD’s policing paradigms in Brooklyn before broken windows policing? or what is the history of displacement of West Indian residents in Flatbush in the 1990s-2000s?

    • Ask about context and systems (the context of a larger system or how the topic itself fits together), for example how did broken windows policing in Flatbush fit into city-wide policies affecting housing, investment, and gentrification? or how have community members and activists in Flatbush connected policing to displacement?

    • Ask about categorization (try grouping into kinds or compare and contrast), for example what kinds of activities were criminalized under broken windows policing in Flatbush? or how is broken windows policing similar or different to stop and frisk, community policing, or other forms of policing?

    • Try to turn a positive question or claim into a negative one, for example why did broken windows policing not have the same impact on gentrification in Flatbush as it did in other predominantly Black neighborhoods such as Bed Stuy? or on other predominantly white neighborhoods such as Park Slope?

    • Ask what if? questions that speculate on other possibilities for how past events might have happened or how future events might happen.

    • Ask questions suggested by secondary sources (and agree, disagree, or explore an area that has not been researched)

  • At this point, look at your possible questions and discard any of these questions:
    • settled facts that could be looked up
    • questions that are impossible to answer
    • questions that lack a “so what”
  • Now you're ready to formulate a research question or problem. Here is one formula for putting it all together:
  1. name your topic: I am trying to learn about/working on/studying _______

        2. indirect question: because I want to find out who/what/when/where/whether/why/how ______

            3. so what? in order to help my reader understand how, why, or whether _____

  • For example:
  1. name your topic: I am studying the types of activities the NYPD criminalized and targeted in broken windows policing in Flatbush in the 1990s-2000s

        2. indirect question: because I want to find out how this criminalization was linked to displacement of West Indian residents during the same period,

            3. so what? in order to help my reader understand whether broken windows policing has had a causal relationship with gentrification in Brooklyn.

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