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Research Tips and Tricks

Topic Narrowing

A common challenge when beginning to write a research paper is determining how to narrow down your topic. 

Even if your professor gives you a topic to study, it will seldom be specific enough that you will not have to narrow it down, at least to some degree.

A topic is too broad to be manageable when you find that you have too many different, conflicting or only remotely related ideas. 

Although you will want to start the writing process by considering a variety of different approaches to studying the research problem, you will need to narrow the focus of your investigation at some point early in the writing process - this way you don't attempt to do too much in one paper.


Ways To Narrow Your Topic

Here are some strategies to help narrow your topic:

Aspect -- choose one lens through which to view the research problem, or look at just one facet of it.

  • e.g., rather than studying the role of food in South Asian religious rituals, explore the role of food in Hindu ceremonies or the role of one particular type of food among several religions.

Components -- determine if your initial variable or unit of analysis can be broken into smaller parts, which can then be analyzed more precisely. 

  • e.g., a study of tobacco use among adolescents can focus on just chewing tobacco rather than all forms of usage or, rather than adolescents in general, focus on female adolescents in a specific age range who choose to use tobacco.

Methodology -- how you gather information can reduce the domain of interpretive analysis needed to address the research problem.

  • e.g., a single case study can be designed to generate data that does not require as extensive an explanation as using multiple cases.

Place -- generally, the smaller the geographic unit of analysis, the more narrow the focus.

  • e.g., rather than study trade relations in North America, study trade relations between Mexico and the United States. 

Relationship -- ask yourself how do two or more different perspectives or variables relate to one another. Designing a study around the relationships between specific variables can help constrict the scope of analysis. 

  • e.g., cause/effect, compare/contrast, contemporary/historical, group/individual, male/female, opinion/reason, problem/solution.

Time -- the shorter the time period of the study, the more narrow the focus.

  • e.g., study of relations between Russia and the United States during the Vietnam War.

Type -- focus your topic in terms of a specific type or class of people, places, or phenomena. 

  • e.g., a study of developing safer traffic patterns near schools can focus on SUVs, or just student drivers, or just the timing of traffic signals in the area.

Cause -- focus your topic to just one cause for your topic.

  • e.g., rather than writing about all the causes of WW1, just write about nationalism.



Be Careful!

When narrowing your topic, make sure you don't narrow it too much. A topic is too narrow if you can state it in just a few words.

For example:

  • How many soldiers died during the first world war?
  • Who was the first President of the United States?
  • Why is ocean water salty?
  • Why are Pringles shaped the way they are?

Tools To Help

YouTube Videos About Narrowing A topic