“Motive” is at once the most obvious part of a paper and the most complicated. It is the reason that the author is writing; the incongruity, puzzle, or surprise being addressed; the why. If the thesis articulates the paper’s promise, the motive presents the paper’s purpose.

A motive can originate in any number of places. It can be, quite simply, the prompt that the paper addresses. It can be the surprising line in a primary source that the writer explains in the paper, or the data trend a researcher has discovered and seeks to explore. It can be the disagreement, hole, or misconception in scholarly literature that the writer resolves, fills, or corrects.

Yet the best motives extend even beyond that. They not only present the question that the thesis answers, but they also tell us why it’s important. Why should we care whether a Malaysian cartoonist’s work is politically neutral? Well, because a more nuanced perspective on what it means to be political can help us make sense of popular mobilization and social movements. Why does it matter whether Caesarean sections make offspring more susceptible to HPV? Well, because HPV presents serious health risks in developing countries. And–to draw from my own misguided attempt at motive–why does it matter whether Obama’s rhetoric and actions in Syria align? Because the relationship between the two might suggest what his strategy (or inclination) actually is, and help us to predict American policy in the region.

For more details, refer to the Motive Preface from our 2014 Issue, available here.

The author


Emily de La Bruyere ’16 is Woodrow Wilson School major from New York City, though she’s in denial about both. Ostensibly she studies security, diplomacy, and Sino-American relations. For better or for worse, she has been known to spend more time at Weaver Stadium than in the classroom.