How to Narrow Your Topic
"I'm writing a paper on World War II."
Often students start their research with a very general topic, even though they may realize the topic is too large to deal with in a 10-15 page paper. Faculty and librarians tell them, "You have to narrow this down." But how do you narrow a topic?
- What discipline am I working in? If you are in a sociology class, ask a sociological question about World War II, like "How did WWII affect women?" If it's a political science class, your question might be something like "How did WWII affect presidential elections in the US?"
- What are some subsets or aspects of your topic. Some good aspects are:
- by place, such as a country or region
- by time period, such as a century, decade or year
- by population, such as men, women, ethnic group, youth, children or elderly
You can combine these ideas, "What were the major impacts of WWII on women in France, in the decade after the war?"
More ideas in our brief tutorial on topic selection and narrowing.
Types of History topics
Three kinds of topics || Three research strategies
1. The evolution of Stokely Carmichael
This is a kind of biographical topic, which is pretty easy to get started with because the search term is obvious, but the topic still needs to be narrowed to say something meaningful in a short [10 pp] paper
2. RFK and the Cuban Missile Crisis
This is a political history topic, with a specific event in mind, and a specific individual. This is an easy kind of topic to start researching because there are two very obvious search terms, and the time frame is self-defined. However it still needs to be narrowed to say something meaningful in a short paper.
3. Automobiles: Unions, Consumerism, and Social Change (1950s)
This is a social history topic, not associated with a single person, or a single event. This is a little harder to research because you need to specify what you mean, in order to narrow the topic. It helps to find the names of specific unions [in this case], and to consider what specific social changes you are interested in.
You need to think: what kind of primary sources would give evidence of this/these social change/s? How will you prove there really was an impact on society from this phenomenon?
What kind of topic do you have?
Where to search & what words to use
What kinds of evidence [i.e., primary sources] do you want to find?
- Biographical topics: What kinds of primary sources will give evidence of the changes this person went through or their impact on society? Why should we care about this person?
- Event- based topics: You need to think: what kind of primary sources will give evidence of a relationship between the person and the event? Why should we care?
- Social history topics: You need to think: what kind of primary sources would give evidence of this/these social change/s? How will you prove there really was an impact on society from this phenomenon?
The Research Process
Choose a topic.
Do a brain dump: Note down what you already know about your topic, including
- Names of people, organizations, companies, time period you are interested in, places of interest [countries, regions, cities]
Fill in the gaps in your knowlege: get background information from encyclopedias or other secondary sources. Wikipedia can be good here.
Select the best places/ databases to find information on your topic. Look under the History Databases tab of this guide for article database suggestions. Or use a catalog like Oskicat or Melvyl to search for books and other resources.
Use nouns from your brain dump as search terms.
Evaluate what you find. Change search terms to get closer to what you really want.
Refine Your Topic - Using the information you have gathered, determine if your research topic should be narrower or broader. You may need to search basic resources again using your new, focused topics and keywords.
Take a look this short tutorial on beginning your research for more ideas.
Choosing a Discipline
So, how do you know what disciplines you should use?
- Look at the department your class is offered by. That's a pretty obvious clue.
- Think about what other disciplines might discuss your topic. For instance, a paper on Education in Chile could involve both Education and Latin American Studies.
What do you do with this information? Search in the article databases dedicated to those disciplines. Here's a list of databases for each discipline, by campus.
- Berkeley databases
- Davis databases
- Irvine databases
- Los Angeles databases
- Merced databases
- Riverside databases
- San Diego databases
- Santa Barbara databases
- Santa Cruz