Identifying a Research Topic
In identifying our research topics, we often encounter the most central questions to our work as students and scholars. What constitutes research? What is the purpose in writing about a topic when so many others have explored it in detail? Use your natural curiosity to guide you toward a topic of substance.
As you begin, you must first differentiate between fields of interest and topics.
For our purposes, a field constitutes an area of research within a discipline: comparative government, international relations, and the like. Usually, a field includes a group of scholars working in interrelated subjects and using similar methods of answering questions. For instance, in the field of modern European history, historians study connected and often overlapping questions, answering their queries by engaging primary sources from the times and places they explore.
A topic involves a more specific subject area, usually that can be stated in just a few words. Usually, a topic can be transformed into a question to be answered in your research. For instance, someone working in the field of modern European history might be working on the topic of German unification and the end of the Cold War.
To begin identifying a topic, you might consider the following exercises.
1. Browse the textbook for our course. Do any topics pique your interest? Did you notice any graphs, charts, maps, or other images that you found engaging? If you wish to work in an area outside of our class content, consider browsing through a textbook in another field. Your instructor gladly will assist you in identifying a good textbook.
2. Browse through a newspaper, journal, or magazine in a field of interest. You might also download a podcast, peruse iTunesU courses, or attend a lecture. Do you notice anything with which you think you disagree with the author or presenter? Did you not understand a certain topic? Is there some aspect of the presentation about which you might like to learn more?
3. Find a discussion of your field on the internet. Many news websites and blogs have a discussion feature. Do controversies, problems, or uncertainties arise?
4. Browse the websites of colleges and universities or museums. You might look at class websites, professors’ pages, and the like. What popular topics of research engage your interests?
5. Peruse the websites of government agencies—in the U.S. or abroad—and international organizations such as the United Nations, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, the European Union, and the like. Look at websites of major non-governmental organizations such as Doctors Without Borders, the American Red Cross, etc. Do any topics fascinate you?
6. Ask your instructor for guidance in identifying popular issues in your field of interest.
As you work, keep a running list, handwritten or electronic, of potential topics and areas of interest. You might also note good books, interesting websites, or engaging writers. As you work, and even after you have committed to your topic, keep you list as a resource.
Adapted from Wayne C. Booth, Gregory G. Colomb, and Joseph M. Williams, The Craft of Research, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 50.