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.
What sort of articles and data do you need to find for your paper? Scholarly, for sure, but there are many others:
- laws and statutes
- 'primary sources'
It's helpful when doing your research to think about how you will use what you find. The acronym BEAM helps you make sure you find materials that will do the job you need in your paper. Research papers need materials in all four categories.
B = Background information. Do you know the seminal works, major scholars and theories in your topical area? What about the actual definitions of the disciplinary jargon you're using? Scholarly encyclopedias are the best source of background information: look in Oskicat under your discipline, with the word encyclopedias, [sociology encyclopedias]. Could also use Wikipedia, a textbook, a newspaper, or any source that fills you in on your big topic.
E = Evidence Often called primary sources, evidence is the stuff you are studying in your research. Evidence could be news coverage, laws, court cases, personal interviews, statistics or data... whatever helps you prove your thesis.
A = Analysis Here are the secondary sources-- analysis is usually written by faculty scholars or technical experts, who are themselves analyzing evidence that they may include or cite. As a student writing a paper, you are doing analysis, so it's important to refer to the work of others studying the same topic
M = Methodology This means the methods and questions you will use to analyze your evidence. Each discipline has its own favorite ways of asking questions and its own ideas about what sort of information can serve as evidence. You must know which methods are suitable to the disciplines you are working within. To find methodology, search for books by using the name of the discipline and the word methodology. E.g. Sociology method*.
[Bizup, Joseph. "BEAM: A Rhetorical Vocabulary for Teaching Research-Based Writing." Rhetoric Review Vol. 27, Iss. 1, 2008]
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.
Build and refine your search
Library catalogs and article databases offer several ways to narrow or broaden, or otherwise control your search. Below are common methods; if they don't work, look for a "Help" link!
Most default to a quick keyword search (somewhat like Google) that assumes you want items containing all the words you type.
Most let you truncate a word with a wildcard symbol (usually * ) to get plurals and other variant forms.
passion* gets passion, passions, passionate
Most offer an Advanced Search with more options, such as searching on an author's name, or words in a title.
REFINING YOUR SEARCH
If your search retrieves too many items, use more specific terms, or put in additional keywords.
gets fewer items than love shakespeare
love poetry shakespeare
gets fewer items than love shakespeare
If your search gets too few items, use more general terms or remove some keywords.
You can also combine terms with OR to get more items.
love OR eros
gets items containing either term.
FINDING RELATED ITEMS
In library catalogs and most article databases, click on the title of an interesting item and look in the detailed display for links (blue underlined text). These may include the author's name, "Subjects" or "Subject headings". Clicking on one of these links will do a search for items tagged the same way.
Many catalogs and databases allow you to save items to a list/folder/etc. and e-mail, print or download the citation. Some will allow you to output citations in a particular citation style (ex: MLA or Chicago).