How to Research a New Debate Topic: 3 Steps

The academic debate season is underway. Whether you're in LD or TP, it’s time to dive into the topic and learn as much about it as you can. Unfortunately, a lot of competitors get intimidated or discouraged when they see a new resolution: and their research methods will often fail to bring them knowledge they can actually use.

Let's change that.

Research is Exploration, not Shopping

When you’re researching this early, do so to learn, not just to look for a case. Right now is the perfect time to learn everything you can about your competition topic. What you read today could be the perfect disadvantage link or solvency position tomorrow.

Last year, I read a government-commissioned report in August for the Higher Education topic and ended up coming back to it eight months later to discover the case my partner and I went undefeated with at nationals. The more you know, the better you’ll do.

This background knowledge allows you to contextualize everything else, making you the most credible debater in the room.

Learn about anything and everything. Even if it doesn't seem helpful. How do you do that?

Step 1 - Build a Map

Begin by mapping out a collection of core themes within a resolution. When you first see a resolution, your mind should jump to major areas of discussion within that topic. This stream of consciousness helps you cut up a broad statement into bite-sized ideas. For example:

Resolved: Dogs are better than cats.

  • Companionship

  • Protection from intruders

  • Exercise by walking

  • Pettability

  • Potential allergies

Now our research is cut out for us. Let’s do this with NCFCA’s 2018-19 Team Policy topic.

Resolved: The United States Federal Government should substantially reform its foreign policy regarding international terrorism.

  • Drone Warfare

  • Military Intervention

  • Sponsors of Terrorism

  • ISIS

  • Boko Haram

  • Islamic Ideology

  • Israel

  • Preemption

  • Pakistan

This list is just the beginning. Discover all the key themes and give yourself some direction.

Step 2 - Dig

Pick a theme and get your hands dirty. Learn everything you can about ISIS. Where did ISIS come from? Is it still on the prowl? How has the international community tried to fight it? Which ways have worked, and which ones have been a complete disaster? Dig for themes, and then dig for sub-themes. Each push of the shovel gets you closer to understanding them.

This is where you want to start finding specific and credible resources. Search, LexisNexis (NCFCA and Stoa offer you a phenomenal discount for Lexis. Watch this video to see how to utilize the platform.), the government accountability office and others. Most people have a television-level understanding of current events: so dive into resources that can make you the voice of clarity in the round.

Step 3 - Play the Pro-Con

Once you pick out the key themes of a topic, start to pick out how people sit on opposite sides of the aisle. For example: fighting ISIS. What are the possible positions?

1. Boots on the Ground

  • Pro: Geographic Advantage. Fighting on the land allows us to gain the upper hand. Now we can push them off their turf.

  • Con: Out of Sight. Terrorist groups like ISIS are often strategically hidden, making a military offensive disorganized and dangerous. We're vulnerable to attack when we're on the hunt.

  • Con: Destroys Our Troops. Fighting on land would endanger the lives of American soldiers, guaranteeing heavy casualties.

  • Pro: Destroys the Enemy. Would create casualties for ISIS: which is what we want. Since their motivations are extreme, we have no choice but to take lives. Weak methods are useless.

2. Sanction Countries Hosting Terrorists

  • Pro: Safer Option. Removes immediate risk to military life.

  • Con: Ineffective Option. If the country either a) can’t control the terrorists, or b) doesn’t care about the sanctions, terrorism will continue just like it always has.

  • Con: Harms the Innocent. Sanctions cripple a country's economy and hurt the innocent citizens living within it.

  • Pro: Necessary Evil. While regrettable, sanctions motivate an entire nation to fulfill its responsibility of eradicating terrorism: which is the greatest evil of all.

And so on. Make a list of possible case options (even ones you wouldn't run) and research articles for and against them. As you develop this repository of knowledge, hone in on the ideas that keep popping up and you'll already be prepared for the majority of your opponents.

While everyone else researches in a way that benefits their immediate case, you see the resolution as a broader set of themes. You're the one with the knowledge, and therefore the power.