What does a clear, good thesis statement for a research paper actually look like? You can see for yourself by reviewing the research articles you’ve been reading. Look at the best ones, the ones you really liked. Most will have a thesis statement (that is, their major argument) in the introduction or conclusion. To illustrate, let’s consider some thesis statements from leading figures across a range of fields. They serve as academic models worthy of emulation. As part of your thesis reading, look for clear arguments to serve as models. You find them in the best books and articles.
Here is Robert Nozick’s introduction to Anarchy, State, and Utopia, one of the most influential—and controversial—works of philosophy in the past half century:
Individuals have rights, and there are things no person or group may do to them (without violating their rights). . . . How much room do individual rights leave for the state? The nature of the state, its legitimate functions and its justifications, if any, is the central concern of this book . . . .
Our main conclusions about the state are that a minimal state, limited to the narrow functions of protection against force, theft, fraud, enforcement of contracts, and so on, is justified; that any more extensive state will violate persons’ rights not to be forced to do certain things, and is unjustified; and the minimal state is inspiring as well as right. Two noteworthy implications are that the state may not use its coercive apparatus for the purpose of getting some citizens to aid others, or in order to prohibit activities to people for their own good or protection. (Robert Nozick, Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic Books, 1974, p. ix)
Here is Max Weber, summarizing his complicated analysis in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism:
What the great religious epoch of the seventeenth century bequeathed to its utilitarian successor was, however, an amazingly good . . . conscience in the acquisition of money, so long as it took place legally. . . . A specifically bourgeois economic ethic had grown up. With the consciousness of standing in the fullness of God’s grace and being visibly blessed by Him, the bourgeois business man, as long as he remained within the bounds of formal correctness, as long as his moral conduct was spotless and the use to which he put his wealth was not objectionable, could follow his pecuniary interests as he would and feel that he was fulfilling a duty in doing so. The power of religious asceticism provided him in addition with sober, conscientious, and unusually industrious workmen, who clung to their work as to a life purpose willed by God. (Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1904–5), trans. Talcott Parsons. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1958, pp. 176–77)
Friedrich Hayek wrote his influential Road to Serfdom in the midst of World War II, warning that increased planning by Western governments carried a profound hidden danger. Here is his thesis:
For at least twenty-five years before the specter of totalitarianism became a real threat, we had progressively been moving away from the basic ideas on which Western civilization has been built. That this movement on which we have entered with such high hopes and ambitions should have brought us face to face with the totalitarian horror has come as a profound shock to this generation, which still refuses to connect the two facts. Yet this development merely confirms the warnings of the fathers of the liberal philosophy which we still profess. We have progressively abandoned that freedom in economic affairs without which personal and political freedom has never existed in the past. (F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (1944); reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1972, pp. 12–13)
Some think that historical studies don’t have such theses. After all, they are filled with detail and rarely seek to generalize their findings to other countries or other periods. Still, the best studies synthesize what they have found about their own time and place. They fuse the myriad details into a meaningful picture. Here is John W. Dower’s eloquent summary argument from Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II:
To understand the Japan that stands at the cusp of the twenty-first century, however, it is more useful to look not for the longue duree of an inexorably unfolding national experience, but rather at a cycle of recent history that began in the late 1920s and essentially ended in 1989. When this short, violent, innovative epoch is scrutinized, much of what has been characterized as a postwar “Japanese model” proves to [be] a hybrid Japanese-American model: forged in war, intensified through defeat and occupation, and maintained over the ensuing decades out of an abiding fear of national vulnerability and a widespread belief that Japan needed top-level planning and protection to achieve optimum economic growth. This bureaucratic capitalism is incomprehensible without understanding how victor and vanquished embraced Japan’s defeat together. (John W. Dower, Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999, p. 558)
Finally, here is David Bevington arguing that Shakespeare’s plays have a visual dimension that reinforces their dialogue and contributes powerfully to their meaning:
Shakespeare’s texts demand visual realization. Ascents and descents, kneeling, ceremonial processions, joinings of hands, and the like are not only omnipresent but function as signs of hierarchical relationship, personal obligation, communal celebration, and a host of other meaningful qualities. Clothing betokens social rank or, conversely, a holiday inversion of it. Gestures often occupy the central moment of a scene or signal the reversal of dramatic action. My aim has been to study this unspoken language of the theater, and to see how Shakespeare regards both its capacity and its limitations. (David Bevington, Action Is Eloquence: Shakespeare’s Language of Gesture. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984, p. viii)
Bevington’s thesis statement appears early—in the preface—but it really begins with the title of his book, Action Is Eloquence: Shakespeare’s Language of Gesture. Dower’s title, Embracing Defeat, captures his thesis, too, and Hayek’s Road to Serfdom anticipates his argument. That’s worth thinking about when you choose your own title. A great title does more than mark off your subject matter. It indicates your take on it. Your title effectively becomes the opening line of your thesis statement.
What Makes a Good Research Paper Thesis Statement?
The thesis statements shown here are vastly different in their subject matter. Yet all of them are concise, forceful, and original. As they stand, however, they are little more than assertions. The authors spend most of their books developing these arguments, supporting them, defending them against likely objections, and showing their full implications. In the process, they build great books around interesting arguments.
In each case, the thesis statement shows that the project is coherent, that its multiple strands are bound together by a single aim. This aim, stated in the argument, is the focal point of the entire work.
That is exactly what you want to accomplish in your own thesis statement for your research paper. In the first few months of thesis research, you’ll take aim. As you move forward with your research and writing, you will adjust your sights. Revising your thesis statement is not a concession. It’s learning. Finally, you will draw conclusions and try to show how your argument hits the bull’s-eye. Don’t worry if your argument changes during your research project. That’s learning!
It is common to revise a thesis argument as research goes forward. Revisions like this are welcome improvements. They don’t mislead the reader unless you say (wrongly) that you have tested a proposition when you actually figured it out afterward, based on evidence revealed as you tested a different proposition.
You cannot use the same evidence to generate a proposition and test it. That’s circular. But it’s perfectly good to look at your evidence and revise your proposition or generate a new one. The revised proposition, you explain, fits the existing evidence but still needs to be tested on other evidence—perhaps another case or a different database. That’s learning, too. Don’t claim to have tested a proposition on evidence if you didn’t, if what you really did was infer the proposition from the evidence you gathered.
You should consider revising the thesis statement in several ways as you work on the research paper. One, which we’ve just mentioned, is in response to testing and evaluation. If some predictions are wrong, then you need to take that into account and modify the argument. Having done that, test the revised predictions against different evidence.
You may also discover that your argument is vague or cannot be evaluated in some circumstances. This problem may not be apparent until you’ve conducted some research, but, having discovered it, you should fix it. That means sharpening and clarifying the argument.
Another possibility is that your original argument is too broad. Your research may reveal it applies perfectly well to the United States but not to Canada, or vice versa. If your thesis statement incorrectly says it should apply to both countries, or perhaps to all democracies, then you need to delimit it. Put a fence around your argument, saying where it applies and where it doesn’t. Don’t do that in an arbitrary or ad hoc way. Specify the limits in clear, general terms, if possible—the same way you stated the thesis itself.
Similar problems can arise when you explore literary materials or historical documents. As you develop your analysis or narrative, you may discover that it no longer corresponds to your original argument. That’s not uncommon as you move deeper into research and writing. But something’s gotta give. Your broader argument should find support in the detailed analysis. Assuming you are more confident about the details (as most students are), then it’s time to rework the thesis argument so it fits snugly.
Except for the comments about testing predictions, these observations apply to the humanities as well as the social sciences. Your analysis of Wordsworth may suggest some insights into his fellow Lake Poets and possibly into all Romantic literature. You may think this broad application is a promising possibility, although nothing more than a possibility at this stage. Or perhaps you are certain the comments apply only to Wordsworth or, even more narrowly, to only a few of his poems. Say that. Tell your readers how widely your analysis applies and what its limits are.
Beyond exploring these limits, review your work to make sure the argument corresponds to the detailed research. If gaps remain, consider how best to explain them and discuss these issues with your instructor. Sharpening and refining your argument like this not only improves your research paper; it improves your understanding. It’s a learning experience well beyond most course work.