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Lehigh University Libraries - Library Guides

IR 236 Causes of War



What follows is an informal set of tips and notes about searching the literature about the causes of a particular war. They more or less correspond to the "Overall Search Strategy Powerpoint" attached at the bottom of this page.

It provides suggestions about the stages of doing your research, not about the mechanics of searching databases.

For the latter, see the tutorial or contact the science librarian, who can also help you with search strategy and research approaches.

Points in this guide should also apply to your presentation, but the focus here is the final class paper.


Consider a topic that is not so general (e.g, "the cause of World War 2") that it becomes overwhelming to research, but not so specific that you find too little research about it. 

The sample topic below concerns the causes of the so-called “Winter War” between Finland and the Soviet Union in 1939-1940.  


Read the research project guidelines and notes about writing the paper, then spend lots of time search for relevant literature. Don't wait until the last moment. It may take time for items to come in via interlibrary loan.


Before doing the searching below, find some high-level, broad background information. This can be in a book or book chapter. You can also check google or encyclopedias. (See the guide to evaluating web resources by scrolling down here.) A popular article in a magazine or newspaper might provide some background information. The idea is to get some basic knowledge that gives a conceptual map about the lead-up to the war, and what happened during it. You will not be citing these background materials; they're only valuable to get you situated about the history of the war. E.g., in creating this sample exercise, I looked at a Wikipedia article. Just remember that you need to confirm independently anything you see in Wikipedia. (See this Wikipedia article about the reliability of Wikipedia.) Some of the sources, including those in the footnotes to a Wikipedia article,  may also suggest scholarly as well as primary resources.

After finding some background information that gives you a conceptual map of the war's basic historical development, look for scholarly books or papers of the following kind. (To distinguish scholarly papers from popular ones, see here.)

This will be literature that explicitly addresses the causes of the war from the standpoint of a theoretical framework, or that gives a causal explanation for the outbreak of the war, not papers or books that almost exclusively focused just on historical detail.

In this example, you may want to look for causes not only for why the Soviets attacked, but also why the Finns did not capitulate.

You may want to keep a record of searches you have already. There is a template for this purpose at the Tracking Searches page of this guide.


Before searching for literature, consider ways the literature will likely describe the war. For example,  search for “the Winter War” in conjunction with the country/belligerent names. Make sure to consider possible ways the name may appear as nouns or adjectives: Russia, Soviet; the Soviet Union; Finland, Finnish.

Set up your search logic, tailoring it to the database you are using. For the database you select, look at its documentation for examples of to set up a good search statement. 

The following is an example of a search string that works in Social Sciences Citation Index (part of "Web of Science").

((Finland or Finnish) and (Russia* or Soviet)) and (war or “winter war”)

Check for examples of how to set up search statements for whatever database you happen to use. 

This is just a starting point for your searching. As you progress, you can refine the search.

For example, if the literature on your topic is massive, you can then tweak the search. Example: add this to your search: 

AND (caus* or explan* or reason*).


Approach 1

Start with some books that seem to have a theoretical orientation at least in part.   Look for the war in index or using an ebook's search feature, or look up the book in google books and use the latter's search feature.

For example, this is in the syllabus:

Causes of War: Power and the Roots of Conflict

The  index has an entry for Soviet-Finnish War of 1939-1940.  You may want to see if the war you selected is in the index, and then check the pages referenced to see if they offer explanations about the war's causes.

Another example: Section I of the book "Small States in the International
System: At Peace and at War"
concerns theory.  
Chapter 7 concerns Finland.



Another approach: search for the war as keyword(s).

If you find too much material, "AND" in keywords for your favorite theoretical frameworks as discussed in the class.


As you find promising sources, look for items published later in time that *cite* the item of interest. This is a powerful way to find relevant articles or books. 


Let's say you found this article:

If you put this title  into Google Scholar, you will see that this article was cited 34 times.

One of the citing items is this article:

Notice that Lehigh Links helped to get to the full text of this article. Whenever you encounter a journal article, read the abstract if available. Plus, read the conclusion. Also, if there is literature review section, look at that, even if the paper is not entirely related to your topic. Also, glance through the footnotes for mention of references,  and look at the bibliography.   

Another one of the citing items is a book:

If you come across a reference to a book, check for the book in the online catalog to see if Lehigh has it available in print or as an ebook. If in print, the location in the library is mentioned (Dewey number, plus is location). If electronic, you can then access it and review the table of contents. You can also search ebooks by keyword. 

This book, however, is not available through the online catalog. Nonetheless, it happens to be a Google Book. Search this book for keywords in the book, therefore bringing up page numbers and snippets of text relating to your topic. For example, look within the book to find references to Finland or the "Winter War", plus look at whatever theoretical framework is mentions. Consult the table of contents and index to the book if Google Books provides. Finally, even though this book is not available at Lehigh, you can order it via Palci.

While at this stage, even if you find an article or book mainly focused on historical detail, you can check whether any items that cite it contain a more theoretical approach. 

Searching is iterative and requires patience. Experiment with different search statements and go back and forth between finding articles and books, then (as we saw) search for items that cite those articles.

You may have to skim through hundreds of search results to find a handful of good sources. Expect a high ratio of items looked to items you actually use.

The more candidate items you identify then evaluate, the better your chances of finding well-developed explanations for the war's outbreak. 


Now sift through the sources you have found so far to find sources that offer two or three well-developed explanations of why the war started.

Weigh them according to how well you think the explanations predict the onset of the war. To do, so, focus at this point on the data and associated arguments that the author(s) uses.  The key question to ask how well the explanations predict, or fails to predict, the breakout of the war.

Jot down your initial impressions about each explanation's plausibility, and also what questions each  poses and that you need to research further. At this point, it's fine if you have more questions than answers about how best to weigh the arguments. This indicates you are fully engaging the material you found.

You are now on the way to writing a great paper, one that is tightly focused and argued, and especially attends to counterarguments to whatever explanations for the cause of the war you find most compelling or interesting. 


Up to now, you've looked mainly for writings that have a mixture of explanatory accounts that give theoretical framework or at least try to identify causes for the outbreak of a war, while also providing historical factors to support the author's argument.

Now open up your search to the following.

First, look for scholarly articles or books that address the theoretical framework that lies behind the theoretical explanation you found. These sources don't necessarily even have to mention the particular war you have researched. They may mention other wars. That can still be valuable; it gives you an opportunity to see how well the theory explains the causes of wars analogous to the war that is your main focus.

Drawing on the example above, you might, for example, search for discussions for causes of war in which small states are a belligerent. Or you might want to search for "coercive states" and "asymmetric power" relations, to borrow from the title of the article mentioned above. 

Second, and conversely, while your focus in the initial stage of researching was to find sources that provide a theoretical framework and historical data, you can now turn much more to literature more focused on "raw historical information" than on providing theoretical accounts.  Maybe the authors you found missed some historical details that challenges their views. You can use secondary literature, but also look for primary literature, e.g. diplomatic cables, autobiographies, and letters.

Tips for finding primary historical materials:

  • when in secondary literature, look for references to or excerpts of primary literature  
  • use OCLC FirstSearch version of WORLDCAT, using the limited for archival material
  • search for dissertations using the Proquest dissertations database. An example of a dissertation: The Russian record of the Winter War, 1939-1940: an analytical study of Soviet records of the war with Finland from 30 November 1939 to 12 March 1940
  • also, see the page of this guide about Primary Sources.  One of the resources there leads you to this one: primary sources relating to the history of Finland

The point of looking at the historical research is to enable you to do your final assessment of the predictive capabilities of the explanations you identified.  

Specifically, the goal is to answer questions like these:

  • Did the explanations you found really predict the results?
  • Can you find primarily historical information might call into question the predictions you would expect from the explanations?
  • Did the scholar's explanation that you focused on “overweight” the role of particular historical factors? Did they overlook some factors?


Read for a second time the research project guidelines and notes about writing the paper. Complete a draft, then set it aside for a few days, then come back to it. Do this a few time over! Good writing is the result of writing, then rewriting, and then rewriting again until you have written something very clear and crisp.

If you do lots of research, you can write a good paper that is tightly focused and argued, and especially attends to counterarguments to whatever explanations for the cause of the war you find most compelling or interesting. 

If you need help with writing, consider going to the writing center