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The Research Process: Refining a Topic

 

Research papers and articles are, by their nature, narrow in focus. One of the biggest challenges, especially when researching an unfamiliar topic, is determining the appropriate scope.

  • An overly broad topic (e.g., Somalia or unconventional war) will yield an unwieldy amount of information and trying to put it all together will result in a disjointed paper or a data dump.
  • An overly narrow topic will make it very challenging to find sufficient information.
  • Read, there is just no way around this. Better to spend some time familiarizing yourself with background information on the topic and determining if there is enough data and scholarship to warrant further research.

Once you've spent some time reading and brainstorming, the contours of your overall topic should become more clear.

To further narrow the scope of your topic consider limiting to:

  • A specific time frame
  • A particular demography (gender, age, ethnic group, occupation)
  • Geographic location
  • Category of analysis or theoretical approach: social, economic, cultural, etc...

Example:

Broad Topic - Women in the military

Think about how that big topic might be focused:

  • A specific service branch
  • Women serving in non-combat specialties
  • Legislative history of women in combat
  • Women serving in a particular conflict or era
  • Sexual harassment
  • A comparison of public attitudes or how attitudes have changed over time
  • An analysis of pro/con arguments
  • Issues of promotion or retention
  • Women veterans
  • Women in combat roles in other countries

Once you have a refined topic, the next step is to take that topic and identify the claim you intend to posit, figure out if you will be arguing for a position or providing an analysis of the issue, and what types of evidence you will need to support your thesis.