GEOG 571
Intelligence Analysis, Cultural Geography, and Homeland Security

Research Project Guidelines


A central part of earning a master's degree is demonstrating the ability to conduct research and to analyze real-world phenomena. The value of doing research and analysis is not limited to academia; these are skills that have immense practical value in both personal and professional spheres, especially within the fields of intelligence and human security, where analysis is the heart of the work. It takes training and practice to learn and refine research and analysis skills. This is why the successful completion of a well-written and well-documented research project is one of the requirements to pass GEOG 571. This research project is worth 230 points total.

What Is a Research Project?

We want to make an important distinction between research projects and reports.

A report is a project where a student chooses a topic, consults relevant sources from which they collect and collate facts about that topic, composes a carefully organized summary or discussion of those facts, and delivers all of this as a paper or presentation.

By contrast, a research project is a project in which a student formulates a central question, consults relevant sources from which they collect and collate information (which can include basic facts, quantitative data, and qualitative data) relating to that question, analyzes and interprets the information they have found, and develops a defensible argument that supports their interpretation. The argument is usually presented in its most basic form as a thesis statement, which appears in the introduction to the completed project, and the completed project is often delivered as a paper or presentation.

Reports and research projects have some things in common: they require a student to identify a question or topic worthy of study; identify, vet, and consult a number and variety of relevant sources; synthesize information from those sources; and compose some kind of deliverable that presents their work. Yet there are a couple of crucial differences that we want to highlight here.

First, while a report centers on a topic, a research project centers on a question. Second, while a report presents a synthesis of information on its topic, a research project makes an argument based on the researcher’s analysis of the information. Both a report and a research project can be a lot of work — but the difference in approach up front (i.e., choosing a question rather than a topic) means that a research project entails a level of critical thinking and analytical skills that a report does not.

Ultimately, where a report simply presents existing knowledge, the goal of a research project is to present new knowledge (or a new interpretation) about something. This is what makes research projects common requirements of graduate-level courses — including this one.

Project Medium:

Research projects are traditionally delivered as research papers. Yet we now have technology that enables us to present research effectively across a variety of media. For this course, you may choose one of the following options for presenting your research:

  • a research paper
  • ArcGIS Online StoryMap
  • podcast
  • blog

You may also suggest another medium. If you choose to present your project in a medium other than a research paper, please make sure to discuss your vision with your instructor.

Regardless of the medium, the research project must result in the equivalent of 12 to 15 pages of text (not including title, reference, graphics, or figures). Note that for podcasts, this translates to 20 to 30 minutes of airtime. The project must also be documented with the APA citation guidelines. Please visit the Penn State University Libraries APA Quick Citation Guide to make sure you are using the proper citations.

If you choose to present your project as a paper, it must use these formatting guidelines:

  • 12 point font
  • double-spaced
  • 1” margins on all sides

Research Project Deliverables:

  • Week 2 - Project Proposal (20 points)
    Students will submit via Canvas a primary research question that will be the focal point of their project. In addition to this, students will provide a statement justifying the merits of completing this research, a list of three potential sources, and the medium they intend to use to convey their research. Note that the medium is not set in stone and can be changed later.
  • Week 4 - Project Outline and Annotated Bibliography (50 points)
    Students will submit an outline that includes the main topic areas of their research project along with an annotated bibliography.
  • Week 7 - Rough Draft (30 points)
    Students will submit a draft of the project.
  • Week 9 - Final Draft (130 points)
    Students will submit the final project (130 points.)
    Note: In addition to the final draft, a one-page Executive Summary of the project (worth 75 points) is due as part of Lesson 9.

Choosing a Research Question:

The key to completing a successful research project is identifying and constructing a good research question. For a research question to be good, it needs to fulfill some basic criteria (the following bullet points come from the George Mason University Writing Center website):

  • clear: it provides enough specifics that one’s audience can easily understand its purpose without needing additional explanation.
  • focused: it is narrow enough that it can be answered thoroughly in the space the writing task allows.
  • concise: it is expressed in the fewest possible words.
  • complex: it is not answerable with a simple “yes” or “no,” but rather requires synthesis and analysis of ideas and sources prior to composition of an answer.
  • arguable: its potential answers are open to debate rather than accepted facts.

All of these points are important for generating a good research question. Given that this is a graduate level course, we want to emphasize the last two points here. The topics and concepts that we use in this course are complex, and your research is meant to generate new knowledge or a new interpretation of existing knowledge. Be mindful of this as you generate your research question. If you can answer your research question with an unqualified “yes” or “no” after a few minutes’ research, or if your sources provide you with a clear-cut answer to your question, it means that your question is not deep enough to merit a research project.

Your research project should sit at the nexus of cultural/political geography and intelligence or human security. That is, your project should consider an issue related to intelligence or human security from a geographical perspective. We encourage you to develop your primary research question around your professional interests; we expect you to take a geographical approach to answering that question.

Your research project should be focused on one or more specific places or regions within the world, and on a specific issue with respect to intelligence or human security. Below are some examples of general research questions that you can use as a starting point to build a more specific question tailored to your interests:

  • How does the creation of border walls impact conflict?
  • What role do GIS and cartography play in the geographic separation of people?
  • What role(s) does ethnicity play in the development of separatist movements?
  • How well do disaster relief policies accommodate people’s attachments to their homes?
  • How well do refugee resettlement programs handle cultural differences between local and refugee populations?
  • What practices or policies can be established to mitigate ethical differences between the disciplines of human geography and intelligence?
  • How are geography, immigration, and marginalization related with regard to radicalization?
  • How does the distribution of natural resources impact conflict?
  • How does the distribution of natural resources impact migration?
  • How are territorial control and the geographic distribution of terrorist attacks related in conflict zones?

Remember: the questions above are meant to get you thinking. Many of the questions posed above are far too broad for you to conduct a research project within the scope of this assignment. You will likely need to hone one of these questions to focus on a more specific question. Note that many of these could be designed to focus on a single place, or to present two or more case studies in comparison. Bear in mind that any research question that you propose should be as specific as possible with regard to place or region, actors, conflict, and other relevant factors.

To help you understand what we mean by “specific,” here are some examples of research questions around which students in other terms have based their research projects:

  • What role has ethnic identity played in the ongoing conflict in the Donbas region of Ukraine?
  • How have place identity and human geography shaped support for paramilitary organizations in Northern Ireland?
  • Do incidents of domestic terrorism and international terrorism display different geographic patterns? [This project presented and compared several case studies.]
  • What was the relationship between nationalism and religion in the Northern Ireland Conflict?
  • How have the PLO and Hamas differed in their approach to Palestinian identity, and what are the geopolitical impacts of these differences?
  • What is the significance of natural resources in the conflict over the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam?
  • How do geography and identity influence radicalization among ethnic minorities? [This project presented and compared several case studies.]

Projects will be graded on strength and sophistication of analysis, clarity of presentation, logic, reliance on accurate information and facts, integration of reading materials (including online lectures), and attention to detail. The grading rubric is provided in the assignment dropbox.

The grade will not be based upon the position taken relative to the issue, but instead will rest upon the accuracy and effectiveness of applying geographic thought. Simply arguing that you "feel" a certain way about something is not a reasonable defense of your position. Instead, you will need to cite relevant sources to support your assertions, with the majority of these sources being scholarly sources. The following video from the University of South Australia describes which sources are considered scholarly.