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Developing a Topic for a Research Paper: Narrowing your Topic

This guide has been designed to provide you with tips and suggestions that may help you develop your topic and guide your research. The information in this guide may not fit the requirements of your assignment. If you are unsure consult your professor.

Selecting your Topic

Watch the brief video by North Carolina State University Libraries that highlights how picking your topic and research are a combined effort.

Narrowing Your Topic

The website Thesis Helpers has a great online guide to narrowing down your research topic.

Developing a Topic

Research Topics

There are a few different ways you might come up with a topic. Your professor might give you one, you might be given a broad subject from which you can work, or it may be left up to you to decide what you will write on. In any case, you will need to refine the topic in order to come up with a manageable and interesting paper.

The first challenge will be coming up with the initial topic, or a place to begin. Has there been anything in the class discussion that piqued your interest?  How about the readings? Have you read anything in the textbook or extra readings that you feel would be worth deeper investigation? Remember – whenever possible try to pick a topic that you find interesting!  This will not only help you stay interested during the research and writing process, but in the end will produce a more interesting paper!  Once you come up with a general topic, it is time to start developing and researching your topic.

Developing a Research Topic

Developing your topic and doing your research go hand-in-hand. You are not expected to know everything about your subject, so you cannot expect to pick a good topic before doing any research.

Your professor might have given you a broad topic – like abortion or the Cold War. This is just a start. If you look for sources on these subjects you will find an overwhelming amount of results on a much too broad subject. From here you will need to decide on a well-defined and specific topic.

In order to do this you can consult a variety of sources (some people call this pre-search). Go back to your lecture notes and course textbook to see if anything was mentioned in class that you find interesting. Another good place to look is reference sources, such as encyclopaedias and dictionaries, to gain an understanding of the historical context or key themes and people involved. Most of this research will not make it into your paper, but will inform your understanding of the topic and allow you to determine what aspects of the topic you want to focus on in your paper.

Begin to narrow the topic by asking:

  •          who – a person, organization, demographic group
  •          what – an event, theory, discovery
  •          where – a country, region, defined geographic space
  •          when – a time span, century, period of time (Victorian era)
  •          why – describe what is significant about this topic

So, for the topic on abortion maybe you are interested in doctors and the advances in medical knowledge during the twentieth century in Canada. You could narrow this even further by limiting the time period to post 1969.

Broadening the Topic

If you end up with a topic that is too narrow or specific you will not be able to find enough relevant sources to support your argument. In this case you must broaden it. For example, continuing with abortion, if we had focused on Chinese immigrant women aged 18-32 in Canada accessing abortions between 1969 – 1989 the searches might not yield enough (or any) results. However, if we focus on immigrant women in Canada accessing abortions post 1969 we might have more luck. Another way to broaden a topic is to do a comparison. An example might be to look at both Chinese immigrant women and Canadian-born women accessing abortions.   

You may also struggle to find sources if your topic is too new. You will need to broaden your topic in this case as well. Doing a comparative analysis or using a theoretical framework (world systems theory, Orientalism, queer theory) might help overcome this problem.

Compare and Contrast Papers

Often, students in the humanities are directed to write a compare and contrast paper.  In this type of paper a student will be asked to examine a common element of two or more separate areas and look at the similarities and differences.  And as mentioned above, adding this element to your paper can be helpful if you need to broaden your topic, but for students starting out with a compare and contrast topic they may find themselves facing a general topic which is far too large to deal with in an average paper. 

For example, you may be asked to compare and contrast the ideas of Moksha in Hindu and Buddhist religions.  Or you might try to compare the causes of domestic violence in Canada and Libya.  Both of these are good general topics, but simply too broad to tackle in an average paper.  When faced with such a topic many students begin their research by trying to find books and articles that deal directly with the topic as stated and they will likely find themselves frustrated fairly quickly.  To begin with a topic like Moksha in and of itself is likely too broad to discuss in a short paper, never mind how it is understood in two different religions.  Students may also begin to get frustrated when they are unable to find articles that are 100% on point.  

A more productive strategy might be for students to think of this type of paper as two mini papers, at least when doing initial research.  So instead of trying to find papers on how Moksha is understood in both Hinduism and Buddhism, students should familiarize themselves with the concept in each of the two religions. Using this method, students would research how Moksha is understood in Hinduism, while at the same time researching Moksha in Buddhism.  From there they can begin to see the different elements from which they can pull a manageable number of similarities and differences to discuss in their own paper.  This same strategy can be used in our example of domestic violence.  Students must first familiarize themselves with the phenomenon in each of the two cultures separately, and then decide how to compare and contrast the two subjects.

Research

As you can see, the research process is the process in which you develop your topic.  Once you have sufficiently narrowed your topic, you can begin to do more in depth research to find sources that will help you develop and prove the overall argument of your paper.  You may still need to tweak this argument as you continue to do research, depending on what information you find.  Knowing exactly what you want to write about will allow you to do more specific searches which will provide more relevant results, cutting back on the difficulty of your research effort. Use Quick Find to find books and journal articles that contain information specific to your topic.

A Note about Thesis Statements

Be sure not to confuse your topic with a thesis statement. A thesis statement is a concise, specific argument that you will prove in your paper. The research you gather and present should work to support your thesis; it will be the evidence you use to prove your argument. Although there are no hard and fast rules, a thesis statement is often a sentence or two in length and placed in the introduction of your paper.

For instance, your professor might give you the topic “Discuss post-colonialism in Michael Ondaatje’s novel The English Patient”.

This topic is more detailed than some of the examples above, but is still quite broad and there are many ways you could approach it, with many possible readings of the text, and with many different elements of post-colonialism from which you could choose.

After doing some preliminary research you decide your topic will be the use of map making and the creation of boundaries in The English Patient as a way to represent the control and authority of colonial powers.

This is much more specific and allows you to narrow your search and your reading of the novel.

Your thesis for this topic might be:

Ondaatje uses Almasy’s inability to map the Zerzura, with the ever-shifting desert symbolizing the hybridity of the colonized, to represent the colonial state’s failure to maintain authority and control.

As you can see, the above is a very specific argument. It differs from the topic by explaining how map making in the novel represents the control and authority of the colonial powers, and offers an interpretation of the literary use of the desert in the novel.

Like your topic, thesis statements should be very specific. It will tell your reader what the paper is about, and how you will present your argument. It should be interesting to the reader. Avoid thesis statements that are too simple or obvious, opinion-based, or something that cannot be argued (a generally agreed upon idea).

The Student Success Centre has more information on the writing process. If you have further questions visit their web site for more information.

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