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Eastern Washington University Libraries

PICI Library Resources

Recommended resources for Practicum in Community Involvement (PICI)

Quality Background/Overview Sources

Focusing Your Topic

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 & Books 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.)

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.

We have two major databases that offer scholarly encyclopedias: Sage Knowledge and Gale Virtual Reference Library.

Another database that can sometimes be very useful for background information is CQ Researcher. It's not a scholarly encyclopedia. Instead it is a public policy magazine that deals with one issue a week. Each article is quite lengthy with information on various aspects of a general public policy issue.

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.

Ways to Focus Most Social Science Issues

These 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.