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How to Narrow Your Topic

When someone starts a research assignment, a typical mistake is to think too broadly about it. This is usually born out of having an interest in a subject but a limited understanding of everything that subject could encompass. For instance, if you wanted to write a paper about hip-hop music, you might do a search for that term in the databases and find yourself overwhelmed by all the information. If you tried to write about all of the information such a broad search would turn up, you would soon find yourself with a book-length manuscript. Since your assignments are likely to be measured in pages instead of chapters, you will want to narrow your topic down as much as possible. Here are some methods for narrowing your topic:

Ask Questions

One approach is to ask questions about your topic to narrow it down: Think, “Who, what, when, where, and how?”


Question: What aspect of hip-hop do I want to talk about?

Possible Answers: Hip-hop and activism? Hip-hop and therapy? Hip-hop and conflict resolution?

 

Question: Who do I want to talk about?

Possible Answers: Teenagers? Adults? Students?

 

Question: Where do I want to talk about?

Possible Answers: Workplace? High school?

 

Possible Narrowed Topic:

How can high schools use hip-hop conflict resolution to increase student safety?

Bring Yourself into the Paper

 

Another approach is to take an assigned topic and then try to find out how something you are personally interested in relates to that topic.


Assigned Topic: Climate Science
 

Possible Foci:

How can businesses benefit by going green?

How does meat consumption impact climate and ecology?

How could concert venues become more ecologically friendly?

How could climate change contribute to social unrest in the Sudan?

Research Questions and Thesis Statements

Many of us have been taught that in order to start a research paper we need a thesis statement, and while that’s true, coming up with the thesis statement first is not necessarily a good way to start your research. Simply stated, a thesis statement is what your paper intends to prove or show. A research question is what you need to learn in order to come up with a good thesis statement.

Instead of starting with a thesis statement, it’s better to start with a question, and there are a couple of reasons for that.

The first reason is that starting with a thesis statement presupposes that you already know enough about your topic to have not only a well-informed opinion, but the most up-to-date and expert opinion possible on the matter. The vast majority of us don’t have that kind of knowledge about academic subjects, so research is required.

The second reason is that starting with a thesis statement builds your own biases into your search and limits your findings only to the ones you expected to find in the first place, which keeps you from learning important new things.

Let’s say you want to write a paper about binge drinking and college students. If you start with the thesis statement, “Binge drinking among college students is caused by peer pressure and rebellion,” and search for those terms, one of three things will happen:

  1. You will find all the information you need to know because peer pressure and rebellion are the only two reasons that college students binge drink
  2. You will find no information because experts all agree that binge drinking is caused by other factors.

These first two scenarios are not very likely, but the third one, which is just as bad for your research, is:

  1. You will find some of the information you need, but not all of it, because your query does not allow for results that show other important reasons that students binge drink.

On the other hand, if you start from the point of asking, “What are the reasons that college students binge drink?” you will find ALL of the reasons that experts think college students binge drink, not just the ones that agree with you. This approach exposes you to a fuller range of ideas about the topic, than you started with, and that knowledge can only make your paper or project better.

After you have completed your research and read the articles you retrieved, in order to write a thesis statement, all you have to do is answer your research question with the information that you have discovered.

“What are the causes of binge drinking among college students?”

May become:

The causes of binge drinking among college students are socialization, pleasure, the affordability of alcohol, and the institutional promotion of drinking culture.

Before you can take a definitive stand on an issue, you need to be well informed about it. That’s why you should start with a question, not with a statement.