THEATER R1B: Performance of Belonging: Citizenship, Difference, and Nation

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?

Ask yourself--

  • 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. 

The Research Process

Choose a topic.  It's OK if it's vague, or too broad; you can get more specific later.

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, etc.)

Fill in the gaps in your knowlege: get background information from encyclopedias (online or in print) or other secondary sources.  Wikipedia can be good here.

Select the best search tools to find information on your topicLook under the Finding Articles tab of this guide for article database suggestions, or click here to see all the article databases available for your subject.  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. 

For more ideas, take a look this short tutorial on beginning your research!

Last Update: December 04, 2012 15:19