In the social and behavioral sciences, the subject of analysis is most often framed as a problem that must be researched in order to obtain a greater understanding, formulate a set of solutions or recommended courses of action, and/or develop a better approach to practice. The research problem, therefore, is the main organizing principle guiding the analysis of your research. The problem under investigation establishes an occasion for writing and a focus that governs what we want to say. It represents the core subject matter of scholarly communication and the means by which scholars arrive at other topics of conversation and the discovery of new knowledge and understanding.
Alvesson, Mats and Jörgen Sandberg. Constructing Research Questions: Doing Interesting Research. London: Sage, 2013; Chapter 1: Research and the Research Problem. Nicholas Walliman. Your Research Project: Designing and Planning Your Work. 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2011.
Do not assume that identifying a research problem to investigate will be a quick and easy task! You should be thinking about it at the start of the course. There are generally three ways you are asked to write about a research problem: 1) your professor provides you with a general topic from which you study a particular aspect; 2) your professor provides you with a list of possible topics to study and you choose a topic from that list; or, 3) your professor leaves it up to you to choose a topic and you only have to obtain permission to write about it before beginning your investigation. Here are some strategies for getting started for each scenario.
I. How To Begin: You are given the topic to write about
Step 1: Identify concepts and terms that make up the topic statement. For example, your professor wants the class to focus on the following research problem: “Is the European Union a credible security actor with the capacity to contribute to confronting global terrorism?" The main concepts in this problem are: European Union, security, global terrorism, credibility [hint: focus on identifying proper nouns, nouns or noun phrases, and action verbs in the assignment description].
Step 2: Review related literature to help refine how you will approach examining the topic and finding a way to analyze it. You can begin by doing any or all of the following: reading through background information from materials listed in your course syllabus; searching the USC Libraries Catalog to find a recent book on the topic and, if appropriate, more specialized works about the topic; conducting a preliminary review of the research literature using multidisciplinary databases such as ProQuest or subject-specific databases from the "By Subject Area" drop down menu located above the list of databases.
Choose the advanced search option in the database and enter into each search box the main concept terms you developed in Step 1. Also consider using their synonyms to retrieve additional relevant records. This will help you refine and frame the scope of the research problem. You will likely need to do this several times before you can finalize how to approach writing about the topic.
NOTE: Always review the references from your most relevant research results cited by the authors in footnotes, endnotes, or a bibliography to locate related research on your topic. This is a good strategy for identifying important prior research about the topic because titles that are repeatedly cited indicate their significance in laying a foundation for understanding the problem. However, if you’re having trouble at this point locating relevant research literature, ask a librarian for help!
ANOTHER NOTE: If you find an article from a database that's particularly helpful, paste it into Google Scholar, placing the title of the article in quotes. If the article record appears, look for a "cited by" reference followed by a number [e.g., cited by 37] just below the record. This link indicates how many times other scholars have subsequently cited that article in their own research since it was first published. This is an effective strategy for identifying more current, related research on your topic. Finding additional cited by references from your original list of cited by references helps you navigate through the literature and, by so doing, understand the evolution of thought around a particular research problem.
Step 3: Since social science research papers are generally designed to encourage you to develop your own ideas and arguments, look for sources that can help broaden, modify, or strengthen your initial thoughts and arguments. For example, if you decide to argue that the European Union is ill prepared to take on responsibilities for broader global security because of the debt crisis in many EU countries, then focus on identifying sources that support as well as refute this position. From the advanced search option in ProQuest, a sample search would use "European Union" in one search box, "global security" in the second search box, and adding a third search box to include "debt crisis."
There are least four appropriate roles your related literature plays in helping you formulate how to begin your analysis:
NOTE: Remember to keep careful notes at every stage or utilize a citation management system like EndNotes or RefWorks. You may think you'll remember what you have searched and where you found things, but it’s easy to forget or get confused. Most databases have a search history feature that allows you to go back and see what searches you conducted previously as long as you haven't closed your session. If you start over, that history could be deleted.
Step 4: Assuming you have done an effective job of synthesizing and thinking about the results of your initial search for related literature, you're ready to prepare a detailed outline for your paper that lays the foundation for a more in-depth and focused review of relevant research literature [after consulting with a librarian, if needed!]. How will you know you haven't done an effective job of synthesizing and thinking about the results of our initial search for related literature? A good indication is that you start composing the outline and gaps appear in how you want to approach the study. This indicates the need to gather further background information and analysis about the research problem.
II. How To Begin: You are provided a list of possible topics to choose from
Step 1: I know what you’re thinking--which topic on this list will be the easiest to find the most information on? An effective instructor should never include a topic that is so obscure or complex that no research is available to examine and from which to design an effective study. Don't approach a list of possible topics to study from the perspective of trying to identify the path of least resistance; choose a topic that you find interesting in some way, that is controversial and that you have a strong opinion about, that has some personal meaning for you, or relates to your major or a minor. You're going to be working on the topic for quite some time, so choose one that you find interesting and engaging or that motivates you to take a position. Embrace the opportunity to learn something new!
Once you’ve settled on a topic of interest from the list, follow Steps 1 - 4 listed above to further develop it into a research paper.
NOTE: It’s ok to review related literature to help refine how you will approach analyzing a topic, and then discover that the topic isn’t all that interesting to you. In that case, choose a different topic from the list. Just don’t wait too long to make a switch and, of course, be sure to inform your professor that you are changing your topic.
III. How To Begin: Your professor leaves it up to you to choose a topic
Step 1: Under this scenario, the key process is turning an idea or general thought into a topic that can be configured into a research problem. When given an assignment where you choose the research topic, don't begin by thinking about what to write about, but rather, ask yourself the question, "What do I want to understand or learn about?" Treat an open-ended research assignment as an opportunity to gain new knowledge about something that's important or exciting to you in the context of the overall subject of the course.
Step 2: If you lack ideas, or wish to gain focus, try any or all of the following strategies:
Once you are comfortable with having turned your idea into a research problem, follow Steps 1 - 4 listed in Part I above to further develop it into a research paper.
Alderman, Jim. "Choosing a Research Topic." Beginning Library and Information Systems Strategies. Paper 17. Jacksonville, FL: University of North Florida Digital Commons, 2014; Alvesson, Mats and Jörgen Sandberg. Constructing Research Questions: Doing Interesting Research. London: Sage, 2013; Chapter 2: Choosing a Research Topic. Adrian R. Eley. Becoming a Successful Early Career Researcher. New York: Routledge, 2012; Answering the Question. Academic Skills Centre. University of Canberra; Brainstorming. Department of English Writing Guide. George Mason University; Brainstorming. The Writing Center. University of North Carolina; Chapter 1: Research and the Research Problem. Nicholas Walliman. Your Research Project: Designing and Planning Your Work. 3rd edition. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2011; Choosing a Topic. The Writing Lab and The OWL. Purdue University; Mullaney, Thomas S. and Christopher Rea. Where Research Begins: Choosing a Research Project That Matters to You (and the World). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2022; Coming Up With Your Topic. Institute for Writing Rhetoric. Dartmouth College; How To Write a Thesis Statement. Writing Tutorial Services, Center for Innovative Teaching and Learning. Indiana University; Identify Your Question. Start Your Research. University Library, University of California, Santa Cruz; The Process of Writing a Research Paper. Department of History. Trent University; Trochim, William M.K. Problem Formulation. Research Methods Knowledge Base. 2006.
Resources for Identifying a Research Problem
If you are having difficulty identifying a topic to study or need basic background information, the following web resources and databases can be useful:
Descriptions of resources are adapted or quoted from vendor websites.
Don't be a Martyr!
In thinking about a research topic to study, don't adopt the mindset of pursuing an esoteric or incredibly complicated topic just to impress your professor but that, in reality, does not have any real interest to you. Choose a topic that is challenging but that has at least some interest to you or that you care about. Obviously, this is easier for courses within your major, but even for those nasty prerequisite classes that you must take in order to graduate [and that provide an additional tuition revenue for the university], try to apply issues associated with your major to the general topic given to you. For example, if you are an international relations major taking a philosophy class where the assignment asks you to apply the question of "what is truth" to some aspect of life, you could choose to study how government leaders attempt to shape truth through the use of propaganda.
Not Finding Anything on Your Topic? Ask a Librarian!
Don't assume or jump to the conclusion that your topic is too narrowly defined or obscure just because your initial search has failed to identify relevant research. Librarians are experts in locating and critically assessing information. This knowledge will help you develop strategies for analyzing existing knowledge in new ways. Always consult with a librarian before you consider giving up on finding information about the topic you want to investigate. If there isn't a lot of information about your topic, a librarian can often help you identify a closely related topic that you can study. Use the Ask-A-Librarian link above to identify a librarian in your subject area.