Skip to Main Content

Guide to Research and Writing for the Academic Study of Religion

Identifying controversial issues

To develop a good question it is necessary to identify a controversial issue about your topic. This does not mean that discussion of your topic will set off nasty arguments at parties, but that conceivably more than one answer might be given to the question, more than one point of view or interpretation could be argued convincingly. If there is only one thesis statement about your topic on which all reasonable people would agree, then you have failed to find a true controversy. On the other hand, if there is more than one possible answer to your question, then you have found a controversial topic. Your job will be to decide which answer is most convincing and to convince others of your judgment.

Controversy is linked to interpretation and evaluation. If a topic is not interpreted or evaluated but simply presented, then you do not have a good starting point for an academic paper. A good rule of thumb is that if you can find more than one point of view expressed by reputable scholars on your topic, then you have found a controversy worthy of examination and exploration in a research paper.

Look for controversy by:

  • Paying attention to what topics your professors emphasize.
    If your professor always returns to the beginnings of Christianity in your New Religious Movements Class, perhaps that is a topic worth exploring.
  • Listening to debates both inside and outside of class.
    Debates tend to develop around controversial topics. If the class cannot resolve a debate about the intersection of politics and religion in your Islam and the Modern World class, consider developing a question in this area.
  • Browsing academic journals.
    Once you know how to find journals, browse through a journal in your general area to find what debates are currently in progress. One of the easiest ways to do this is to find responses to past articles; this immediately indicates a point or argument that is controversial.