Strategies for Narrowing a Topic to a Focused Research Question
Usually researchers start out with a broad topic before narrowing it down to a question. These strategies can help with that process.
Create a visual map your topic that shows different aspects of the topic. Video on Concept Mapping for a Research Paper.
Think about questions related to your topic. For example, when researching the local food culture, you might consider:
- Why do people buy local?
- What specific food items are people more likely to buy local and why?
- What are the economic aspects of buying local? Is it cheaper?
- Do people in all socio-economic strata have access to local food?
Who, What, When, Where, and Why (the 5 W’s), and How
These kinds of questions can help you brainstorm ways you might narrow your question.
Reference sources like the ones listed below can help you find an angle on your topic and identify an interesting research question. If you are focusing on a particular academic discipline, you might do background reading in subject-specific encyclopedias and reference sources, such as those in Oxford Handbooks Online and Gale Virtual Reference Library.
Sources for background reading:
- CQ Researcher Plus Archive - Reports on key issues in the U.S.Congress from 1923 to the present. Includes a searchable archive by keyword, date, or subject.
- Opposing Viewpoints in Context - Controversial contemporary topic summaries and overviews of current issues.
- Oxford Bibliographies - Offers exclusive, authoritative research guides.
- Oxford Handbooks Online - brings together the world's leading scholars to write review essays that evaluate the current thinking on a field or topic, and make an original argument about the future direction of the debate.
- Gale Virtual Reference Library - Full text encyclopedias and reference books in all disciplines.
- Wikipedia: Get a quick overview of your topic and keyword ideas. (Of course, evaluate these articles very carefully, since anyone can change them). An entry's table of contents can help you identify possible research angles; the external links and references can help you locate other relevant sources. You won't want to use Wikipedia in your final paper, because it's not an authoritative source. However, it can be a useful jumping off point during the topic development and brainstorming phase of the research process, allowing you to more quickly and efficiently delve deeper into the research on a given topic.