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Research Guides

Eastern Washington University Libraries

English 201: Library Research for Professor Poshusta

Fall 2023 ENGL 201-11

Narrowing Your Topic - Questions to Ask

Ways to Focus Most Social Science Issues

Many English 201 students research topics that fall under the social sciences. There are some common ways social scientists focus their research.

Specific group affected by X issue?

Most researchers study a specific group of people and how they relate to whatever issue, rather than everyone. In our body image example above, you could focus on body image and a particular age group of girls, versus all girls. Or you could focus on body image and a specific ethnic group, or those who engage in a specific sport.

Specific method of solving X?

Rather than trying to analyze all the ways an issue can be solved, narrow to one or two and analyze them in more detail. If you tried to cover all the ways to solve the problem of body image, that would be book-length!

Specific cause of X?

Similarly, don't try to cover all the causes of your issue. Narrow to one or two. For body image, you might argue that the mass media causes body image issues in women, but focus on a particular type of mass media or a particular genre of film or television.

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. Think of Wikipedia-like information, except written by an expert in the field.

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.