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Organizing Your Social Sciences Research Paper: Broadening a Topic Idea

The purpose of this guide is to provide advice on how to develop and organize a research paper in the social sciences.

Importance of...

It is important to adopt a flexible approach when choosing a topic to investigate. The goal when writing any research paper is to choose a research problem that is focused and time-limited. However, your starting point should not be so narrowly defined that you unnecessarily constrict your opportunity to investigate the topic thoroughly. A research problem that is too narrowly defined leads to any of the following problems:

  • You don't find enough information and what you do find is tangential or irrelevant.
  • You find information that is so specific that it can't lead to any significant conclusions.
  • Your sources cover so few ideas that you can't expand them into a significant paper.
  • The research problem is so case specific that it limits opportunities to generalize or apply the results to other contexts.
  • The significance of the research problem is limited to only a very small, unique population.

Ravitch, Sharon M. and Matthew Riggan. Reason and Rigor: How Conceptual Frameworks Guide Research. Los Angeles, CA: SAGE, 2017.

Strategies for Broadening the Research Topic

In general, an indication that a research problem is too narrowly defined is that you can't find any relevant or meaningful information about it. If this happens, don't immediately abandon your efforts to investigate the problem because it could very well be an excellent topic of study. A good way to begin is to look for parallels and opportunities for broader associations that apply to the initial research problem. A strategy for doing this is to ask yourself the basic six questions of who, what, where, when, how, and why.

Here is an example of how to apply the six questions strategy to broadening your topic. The research topic is to investigate ways to improve trade relations between Peru and Bolivia. Ask yourself:

  • Who? -- are there other countries involved in the relations between these two countries that might want to challenge or encourage this relationship? Are there particular individuals or special interest groups [e.g., politicians, union leaders, etc.] promoting trade relations or trying to inhibit it? [remember to ask both the individual who question and the collective who question].
  • What? -- what are the specific trading commodities you are examining? Are there commodities not currently traded between Peru and Bolivia that could be? What commodities are not being traded but could be?
  • Where? -- are there examples of other bi-lateral trade agreements that could model the potential for closer trade relations between Peru and Bolivia? Note that the question of where can also relate to specific spatial and geographical issues, such as, are there any barriers impeding transportation of goods in the region?
  • When? -- how long have these countries had or not had trade relations? How far into the future might a trade relationship last given other factors? The question of when can relate to past issues as well as future areas of interest.
  • How? -- how might Peru and Bolivia forge these ties in relation to, for example, long-standing internal conflicts within each country? Note that the how question can also be framed as, "In what way might...." [e.g., In what way might improved trade relations lead to other forms of economic exchanges between the two countries?].
  • Why? -- what advantages can each country gain by pursuing active trade relations? Why might other countries be concerned about closer ties between these two countries? Asking why can raise the "So What?" question applied to your topic and, thus, provide a means of assessing significance.

Reflecting upon these six questions during your initial review of the literature can help you formulate ways to expand the parameters of your initial research problem, providing an opportunity to identify new avenues of investigation and centering your study around gaps in the literature when answers to questions cannot be found. Once you've identified additional directions in which to proceed with your topic, you can try narrowing it down again, if needed.

NOTE:  Do not determine on your own that a research problem is too narrowly defined to find any relevant or meaningful information. Always consult with a librarian before making this assumption because a librarian can help guide you to undiscovered research or suggest ways to design a broader analysis of your research problem.

Booth, Wayne C. The Craft of Research. Fourth edition. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 2016; Coming Up With Your Topic. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; Getting Started With Your Research: A Self-Help Guide to Quality Information, Jean and Alexander Heard Library. Vanderbilt University; Strategies for Broadening a Topic. University Libraries. Information Skills Modules. Virginia Tech University.