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Introduction to Research: Humanities and Social Sciences

Choosing Your Research Topic

Identify Your Topic

Selecting a topic is the first step. If the choice is up to you, pick a topic that interests you. Think broadly about your topic and do some preliminary research by consulting subject encyclopedias, dictionaries or handbooks. You can also check appropriate current periodicals or browse shelves of books classed in subject areas to get ideas on research topics.

Refine Your Topic

You will probably have to narrow your topic since most topics are too broad for a research paper. For example, you want to research the use of Ancient Greek comedy.  

This topic is still too broad and you will need to further refine it.  For example: Women's role in the comedies of Plautus.

Develop Your Topic

Once you have identified your topic:

  • State the topic in the form of a specific statement or question.
  • Identify the main concepts, terms and keywords that describe your topic.
  • Start making a list of words to describe your topic.

Use dictionaries and thesauri to define other terms to build a useful list of terms. These terms will become the keywords for searching catalogues, indexes, and databases for information about your subject.

For example:

Main concepts:               women, role, comedies, Plautus 

Secondary concepts:     female, women, woman, 
                                          role, character, characterization 
                                          comedy, comic drama, , Plautus, Miles Gloriosus 

Once you have identified key terms for your topic, you are ready to shape your strategy for searching catalogues, indexes and databases.

To visually spell out the concepts and relationships among the ideas, check out these examples of concept tables. (Virginia Tech University Libraries)

Form a Search Strategy

Go to the section on Search Strategies as well as University of Saskatchewan Library's How to Formulate a Search Strategy guide.

WWWWW Strategy

Once you have a basic topic in mind, the Who, What , Where, When or Why Strategy is a great way to begin to think about different aspects of your topic and begin to focus on it.

WHY did you choose the topic?  What interests you about it?  Do you have an opinion about the issues involved?

WHO are the information providers on this topic?  Who might publish information about it?  Who is affected by the topic?  Do you know of organizations or institutions affiliated with the topic?

WHAT are the major questions for this topic?  Is there a debate about the topic?  Are there a range of issues and viewpoints to consider?

WHERE is your topic important: at the local, national or international level?  Are there specific places affected by the topic?

WHEN is/was your topic important?  Is it a current event or an historical issue?  Do you want to compare your topic by time periods?