Choosing a Topic

Sections:
1) Introduction
2) What is Research?
3) Choosing a Topic
4) Determine Sources of Information
5) Develop Search Strategy

Step 1: Choose a subject or area of interest
Every journey must begin with a first step. The first step in the research process is to decide on a tentative subject or area of interest. At this point in your research, it is perfectly acceptable if you only have a very general idea of what you'd like to pursue. For example, you may decide you'd like to research illegal immigration, alcoholism, freedom of speech, computer networks, elementary education, or astronomy. But each of these subjects is far too broad for a single research project. 

Even though you have started by thinking only of a general subject area, your goal is to narrow and focus your subject until, at Stage 3, you come up with a research topic, which is often stated in the form of a question. What is the difference between a subject and a topic? A subject is a broad area of interest from which a more specific topic can be chosen. A research topic, therefore, is a relatively narrow area of interest that can be thoroughly researched and discussed within the page length guidelines given by your instructor. Examples of subjects and topics are given below:
SUBJECT RESEARCH TOPIC

Elementary education

"What are effective methods for teaching children how to read?"

Journalism

"What are the effects of corporate ownership and media monopolies on news reporting and editorial freedom?"

Astronomy

"What are the latest speculations about the origins of the universe?"

Economics

"How does illegal immigration affect the United States economy?"

Law/Political Science/Sociology "What steps, if any, should the government take to censor pornography and hate speech on the Internet?"

Notice that each of the five research topic examples are open-ended questions, i.e. they are phrased in such a way that the researcher is deliberating inviting different perspectives. This open-minded approach to all viewpoints is essential. If you begin your research with your conclusions and point of view already determined, you are not undertaking a true research project in the sense it's being described in this course. If that were the case, you would very likely fall victim to research bias, a flawed approach in which you only consider information and evidence that supports your pre-conceived opinion and ignore information and evidence that does not. It is only after reading broadly, carefully gathering and evaluating several viewpoints and types of evidence that you can feel justified about reaching your own conclusions and expressing them in a concise thesis statement.

At this point you are merely choosing a broad subject area from which you will soon (during Stages 2 and 3) shape a precise research topic. If you are unable to come up with a broad subject area, here are some suggestions that may spark ideas:

  • Choose a subject that interests you. The more curiosity you have about an area, the more enthusiasm and motivation you'll bring to the project, which will in turn be reflected in the quality of your work.
  • Browsing your textbook, lecture notes, current magazines and newspapers, and annual review sources (yearbooks, e.g.) may give you ideas.
  • Ask your instructor or college librarian for help choosing a subject.

Step 2: Conduct a preliminary exploration of your subject
Now that you have decided on a general subject area for your research, it is important to gain a sense of what your subject area entails. In other words, what is your subject all about and how much information exists on this subject? More precisely, you should ask yourself the following questions:

  • What discipline(s) or profession(s) fall under this subject?
  • How has this subject developed or changed over time?
  • What key concepts and terms are used in this subject area?
  • What are some of the currently disputed or controversial questions concerning this subject?
  • Who are the key thinkers and researchers in this area?
  • What are some of the key publications in this subject? (Fink 79)

These questions can usually be answered by skimming through relevant articles in general and subject encyclopedias, research guides, annual review sources, and bibliographic guides. Preliminary reading in these types of sources will familiarize you with your subject area and help you gain a sense of its scope and complexity. Once you have gained some background knowledge during this overview stage, you should be able to make significant progress toward formulating a central research question (Stage 3). Stage 2, therefore, is a critically important part of the research process because it is here that you are deciding exactly what aspect or aspects of your subject you want to focus on. 

A final benefit of conducting a preliminary topic overview is that this early effort almost always provides you with a preliminary bibliography, i.e. a list of books, articles, reports, etc., that depending on how your topic is eventually defined, you may want to read.
 
Step 3: Narrow and shape your subject into a specific topic
At this stage of the process, you should be able to articulate at least a tentative topic for your research project. Beware of choosing a topic that is too narrow or too broad. A good rule of thumb to remember is this: If there are entire books written about your topic, it is too broad for a research paper. Conversely, if your research question can be fully answered in a few paragraphs, your topic is too limited. Also beware of choosing a topic that is too recent, obscure, or specialized for you to find published material in a variety of formats. If, however, you initially choose a topic that is too narrow, too broad, or too esoteric, keep in mind that zeroing in on an appropriate topic can sometimes continue well into later stages of the research process. In other words, as you gather more information on your topic in Stages 5 through 7, you are free to modify your research topic if you discover through your reading that you have defined your topic too narrowly or too broadly.

As stated earlier, research topics are often stated in the form of a question. For example, "How does illegal immigration affect the United States economy?" When phrasing your research topic, keep in mind it will usually include at least two aspects or main ideas, often referred to as concepts

For example, you may have chosen law as your general subject, in particular criminal justice. After some preliminary research and background reading, you might discover that one major area of debate is the death penalty and whether or not it provides a deterrent to violent crime. Your first concept, or main idea, is death penalty. The second concept is violent crime rates. The two (or often three) concepts of a research topic can often be phrased in relation to each other as follows:

"The effect of ___(concept #1)___ on ___(concept #2)___ ."
"The role of ___(concept #1)___ in ___(concept #2)___ ."
"The use of ___(concept #1)___ in ___(concept #2)___ ."

Therefore, after conducting your preliminary topic exploration in the subject area of criminal justice and finding a particular focus that interests you, a plausible research topic is: 

"The effect of the death penalty on violent crime rates in the United States."
_______________(concept #1)______(concept #2)

Reword this topic in the form of a question, it now becomes: "How does the death penalty affect violent crime rates in the United States?"

When wording your research question, it is best to begin with the words How or Why. Research questions beginning with these words automatically suggest a somewhat broad investigation and substantive discussion, thus helping you avoid phrasing your topic too narrowly. On the other hand, avoid starting your research question with the words Who, Where, or When. These words tend to force your research into a limited aspect of your subject and you'll be unable to come up with enough material for your project. Research questions beginning with What can be acceptable or unacceptable, depending on how much scope and breadth the rest of the question implies. Note the difference between these two research questions, each beginning with "What .":

Too narrow for most research assignments: "What percentage of violent crimes are punished by the death penalty each year in the United States?"

A broader research question appropriate for most research projects: "What is the effect of the death penalty on violent crime rates in the United States?" 

(Note that this is essentially the same relatively broad question as our earlier phrasing of this topic, except that we started with the word "How". Either phrasing - beginning the question with "How" or "What" - is appropriately focused.)