Narrowing Your Focus

Generally, a topic is too broad if you can state it in four or five words. For example, “nutrition in juvenile prisons” is too broad to effectively research and write about. Imagine if you were talking with a classmate and stated that you planned to write on this topic for an upcoming assignment. Your classmate’s response would likely be, “What about nutrition in juvenile prisons?” As the question suggests, the topic needs to be narrowed to a specific, manageable focus for research and writing. One way to do so is to use action verbs and detailed nouns; in the process of integrating such language into the topic phrase, you will likely find not only that the topic becomes narrower, but also that you generate some keywords you can use to help search for sources.

What can you do to generate and narrow topic ideas, though, when you do not already have a topic in mind? You may be able to use content you have researched for an earlier assignment to get you started, but you can also use Wikipedia portals, a resource that can help you explore subjects and locate issues. Find a portal related to your major and spend some time reading random articles. You might find something that interests you!

research toolbox

Using Wikipedia to Identify an Issue

Wikipedia portals are a great way to explore subjects and locate issues. Go to the listing of Wikipedia portals and find one that closely aligns with your major. Use the portal to identify the field, two subjects, and three issues.

As you work toward narrowing your focus, keep in mind the relationship among subjects, issues, and topics. Basically, if we consider “Field” (or “major”) to be the largest category, the next division within Field would be Subject. For the field of Criminal Justice, two subjects might be “Corrections” and “Homeland Security.” These are broad categories that have whole journals, books, and even classes devoted to them. Subjects like these can then be broken down into issues and topics.

If we choose the subject of “Corrections,” for example, two issues might be “prisoner recidivism,” or ex-convicts returning to prison after committing more crimes, and “corrections officer retention,” or the rate at which correction officers remain in their jobs. Although these are more specific than the subject, they are still too broad; if you were to use these phrases as keywords to search for sources, the large number of results would suggest the need for further narrowing. How can we reduce an issue to a topic then? Well, if we choose “prisoner recidivism” as our issue and use strategies such as asking questions (e.g., “What about prisoner recidivism interests me?”; “What factors contribute to prisoner recidivism?”; etc.) to identify specific ideas pertaining to it, two topics might be as follows:

  1. the role of inmate educational programs in the rehabilitation of ex-cons
  2. support programs for ex-inmates in the community once they leave prison

Those still aren’t research questions, but they are much more precise, and can easily be transformed into research questions.

Take a look at the diagram below to see where to go to find different levels of information for your topic. In the process of looking at source materials and gathering more detailed information on a topic, you may find yourself actually narrowing your focus even further. You can also use strategies such as applying filters in a database or scanning titles of a recent issue of a journal in your field to help you with your topic.

General Information and Overview of a topic: Best found in Websites and Encyclopedias; Learn More about Details of Topic: best found in books, newspapers, news sources, news magazines; Find Specific Information about Topic: scholarly journals, statistical sources, government publications

Turn your topic into a question

When you think you’ve chosen a topic, it’s time to ask some questions. Using “environmental issues” as our general research interest, for example, let’s ask some questions about environmental issues and agriculture. When you first start posing questions, it’s helpful to start with the journalistic questions:  How?, Who?, What?, Where?, When?, and Why? Keep in mind that some of the questions you develop using this approach will not be helpful for your research, whether because they are readily answered with a quick Internet search (so are not complex/robust enough to warrant further study), are hypothetical, etc. However, some of the questions you generate likely will be promising to explore, or at least lead you to new ways of thinking about the topic. Here are some example questions:

How: How do government agricultural subsidies impact the price of food?  How does the use of pesticides affect food safety?
Who: Who is most likely to buy organic food (e.g., what is the profile of the organic food buyer)? Who owns the most seed patents?
What: What are considered best practices for ensuring food safety with the use of pesticides? What criteria must be met for food to be labeled genetically modified? What fruits and vegetables are most treated with pesticides (the “Dirty Dozen”) and, as a result, are recommended to buy organic?
Where: Where are pesticides used most frequently? Where does pesticide poisoning occur most? Where are genetically modified foods grown the most?
When:  When was the first genetically modified food introduced? When did the push to eat organic food first begin?
Why: Why does the European Union ban the sale and distribution of genetically modified food? Why may seed patents be dangerous?