Research Questions & Focusing Your Topic

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Too big a topic? Too narrow a topic? How to get it just right:

  • If you choose to research a topic that is too broad, or has too large of a scope, you will find too much information and find it hard to form an argument or answer a specific question.
  • If you choose to research a topic that is too narrow/specific you won't be able to find enough information to answer your research question. 
  • Start by choosing a general research topic 
  • Do some background research to narrow the scope and pick a research question.
    • A narrower topic will make it easier to search for sources later on, and to know what keywords, dates, locations, or disciplines of study are important for your research. 
Try this exercise to see if you can tell if a research question is too broad, too narrow or just right!
credit: SUNY Empire State College

Tips to help narrow a topic:

You may find it easy to identify subtopics by looking at encyclopedia articles, textbooks, or other library sources. If you have trouble narrowing a topic, you can try using these strategies:

  • Choose a specific aspect or sub-group to study
    • Instead of studying all people, look at adolescents specifically
    • Instead of studying all online communication, look at email specifically
    • Instead of studying all cars, look at SUVs specifically
  • Choose a specific place or a narrower location
    • Instead of studying all of East Asia, look at China specifically
    • Instead of studying alll of Canada, look at Ontario specifically
  • Choose a specific time - a shorter length of time will be more specific
    • Finding information about a specific time period can be difficult - do a test search to make sure this is useful for your topic
    • Instead of studying all time, look at the most recent 20 years specifically
    • Instead of studying the 20th century, look at the 1980s specifically
  • Choose two perspectives or variables and compare them, or look for a relationship (such as a cause and effect)
    • Compare your topic in a modern/contemporary setting and a historical setting
    • Compare groups to individuals
    • Compare men and women
    • Compare two different locations

Need more help with your Research Question? Try these:

Content last reviewed: July 6, 2020