“Topic” versus “Thesis”

What is a topic? A thesis? How are they related?

Your topic is the focus of your paper. It’s what you’re writing about.

Your thesis is your contribution. It’s why you’re writing.

For example: suppose you are interested in writing about internet censorship. You think that even though there sometimes might be good reasons to censor online, such censorship should be permitted in only the most extreme circumstances, and with plenty of public oversight and transparency. The topic would be internet censorship. The thesis would be your recommendation that internet censorship ought to be very limited, etc.

Note a couple of things about what I just said:

  • First, this hypothetical topic (“internet censorship”) is actually a pretty bad topic for a seminar paper. Not that censorship is an unimportant topic, but rather, it’s an overly broad topic. A student wanting to write about this topic will need to narrow the topic considerably in order for the research, reading, and writing tasks to be manageable. For example, a more suitably narrow topic might be “internet censorship in [country X],” or “how YouTube uses technology to automatically block copyright infringements.” Even those topics (especially the “country X” topic) may need further narrowing.
  • Second, two students writing about the same topic might have very different theses. For example, one student might think censorship should never be permitted. Another might think certain types of expression ought to be censored regularly.
  • Third, a particular topic might be written on regularly. But to avoid preemption (at least in my opinion), it’s the thesis that needs to be original. 

With these thoughts in mind, let me expand  the differences between topic and thesis. Ways of explaining “topic” would include: what you’re writing about, the question your paper poses, or the problem you are trying to solve.

The “thesis” is responsive to the topic.  It is why you are writingIt is the answer to the question, the solution to the problem you have identified. Consider the table below, which explores aspects of topic versus thesis:

Topic  Thesis 
What Why
Question Answer
Problem Solution
What others think What you think
Descriptive & doctrinal Prescriptive & normative
Is Ought

In particular, note the last two rows listed above:

  • To discuss your topic, you’ll need to explain how the world is. That’s what academics mean when they refer to “descriptive” scholarship. You need to describe the facts and circumstances underlying your problem. Thus, give me the historical and/or technical facts. You’ll also need to explain what the law is. That means you’ll need to do “doctrinal” discussion of how the law is.
  • To develop your thesis, you’ll need to justify how things ought to be. You’ll need to make recommendations, i.e., “prescriptions” about what changes should be made, or how courts ought to better approach difficult issues. A claim about how the world ought to be is a “normative” claim. 

In closing: in your writing — as well as in classroom discussion or in your thinking — always be clear about the difference between topic and thesis. Also be clear on the difference between descriptive and doctrinal writing versus prescriptive and normative writing.

Last updated Aug. 22, 2015 (changing justification of table).