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FIQWS Individual & Society

Narrowing your Research Topic

The first step in the research process is to select a topic. The topic you choose should be neither too broad nor too narrow in scope. Rather, it should be specific with some well-defined boundaries. To help you define a research topic, consult background resources, such as scholarly encyclopedias, to learn more about your topic and to find recommended related articles and books on the topic. If, when you search for sources on your topic, you get too many results, you may want to narrow your topic further. If you get too few, you may need to broaden its scope.

Other elements you may want to consider to help you define your topic include:

  • Geographic Location: Where does the topic take place?
  • Time Period: When did your topic become important or of issue?
  • Population Type: Who are the people involved or affected?
  • Point of view: What is the lens through with you are considering your topic (e.g., economic, social, cultural, biological)?

Sometimes, we start with a topic in mind that is too broad or general. It might seem like the right size for your paper in the beginning, but is way too big after you’ve learned a little more about it. When this happens, you need to narrow the focus of your paper. You can do this by considering different ways to restrict your paper topic.

There are many ways to narrow the focus of your paper. Here are just a few:

  • Who – population or group (e.g., college students; women; Asian Americans)
  • What – discipline or focus (e.g., sociological or historical perspective)
  • Where – geographic location (e.g., United States; universities; small towns)
  • When – time period or era (19th century; Renaissance; Vietnam War)
  • Why – why is the topic important? (to the class, to the field, or to you)

For example, a paper about alcohol use would be very broad. But a paper about reasons for alcohol abuse by women college students in the United States during the 1990s might be just right.

concentric circles with textThis image visualizes narrowing a topic as starting with all possible topics and choosing narrower and narrower subsets until you have a specific enough topic to form a research question.

Further reading on narrowing a topic can be found in the section Narrowing A Topic from this ebook, Choosing & Using Sources: A Guide to Academic Research, from Ohio State University.

Need Help Choosing a Topic?