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Research Guides

Eastern Washington University Libraries

English 201 Library Research

Narrowing Your Topic - Background Info

I'm Not Sure How to Focus My Topic

It's natural to have general ideas on what you want to research, rather than knowing specifically what your final research question is going to be. As you explore sources on your topic, you will continually refine your research question. And if the process makes you feel anxious because you don't know exactly where you are headed, you are in good company because that's how most people feel when they are doing research. (There has been lots of research to back this up. See Kuhlthau's Information Search Process.)

In short, don't worry if you haven't figured out how to focus your topic. it's fine to begin the process with general ideas.

Scholarly Encyclopedias Are Your Friends!

One proven method of narrowing your topic is by reading overviews of the issue in general, while keeping an eye out for a specific aspect that interests you. This is where scholarly encyclopedias can be very useful.

The entries in scholarly encyclopedias are written by professors and researchers, the same people who are writing the scholarly journal articles. But the information is much more general, giving the reader a solid overview of various aspects of the issue -- findings from major studies to why the issue is important to anyone. (A good Wikipedia entry can serve the same purpose, but scholarly encyclopedia entries are written by experts, not anyone who cares to add something.)


If you were interested in body image and how that affects women, you might start with an encyclopedia entry such as this one from the Encyclopedia of Applied Developmental Science in the database Sage Knowledge. In the overview, there are paragraphs that discuss body image and socioeconomic or class issues, body image and different ethnic groups, body image and athletes, etc.

Political Issue? Issue the General Public Cares About?

Don't Forget About Books!

Other resources to keep in mind are books. Now you're initial reaction is probably "I don't have time to read an entire book." But you do have time to skim a book or two. Many times you can get the same kind of overview information by skimming a good, scholarly book on your general issue.

An efficient method of skimming academic books is to read the introduction and the conclusion, and note the chapter titles in the table of contents -- how the book progressed from the introduction to the conclusion. You may find that one or two chapters are very useful for your topic, and reading them carefully isn't any more time consuming than reading the journal articles.

You may even find a recent academic book that contains a series of chapters written by different people, all on similar themes. You just located the equivalent of several journal articles on your topic, just conveniently packaged in one book.

To locate books, see the tab Find Books and Videos.

Another resource that gives you similar background information, but isn't a scholarly encyclopedia, is CQ Researcher -- you may remember it from English 101. It's a magazine and quite useful for political issues.