Skip to Main Content

University Library

American Multicultural Studies

Understanding Your Topic

We usually start a research project with a broad topic in mind, but aren't sure yet exactly what our research question might be. A research question has to be narrow and specific enough that you can address it in a relatively short paper. But how do you know how to narrow down your topic? There are a few ways that you can use sources and information to help you narrow down your topic something specific enough that you can research it in the amount of time you have. 

One of the first things I recommend is to do a little free writing. You probably chose your topic because you're interested in it. Spend about five or ten minutes writing down everything you know about your topic...and everything you want to know. Don't worry about whether your writing makes any sense; you're the only audience for this. The process of writing about what you know and why you're interested in your topic can help you decide how to focus your topic. 

I also suggest going back to an article you've read in the past that you were interested in, and looking more closely at the author's arguments, the sources that person cited, and any questions for further research the author may have raised at the end. Reviewing things you've read in the past can help remind you about something you were particularly interested in. 

Using OneSearch

I also recommend starting your research process by doing some broad searches in OneSearch. OneSearch is the library's main search engine, and contains citations and records for all kinds of things in every subject. Do a search using some of the keywords related to your topic and browse through all of the different kinds of results that come through. 

When you search like this, keep in mind that you're not trying to find the one perfect source for your paper. You're on an exploratory mission to see what kinds of research is out there on your topic. What kinds of books have people written? What kinds of articles? How did other researchers narrow down the topic? What are some of the questions and issues that seem to come up frequently? 

Search OneSearch

Use this form to search OneSearch. You can choose whether to search keywords, or look for a specific title, author, or subject term. You can also narrow down to the type of item you're looking for.

If you've never used OneSearch, this video will give you a useful overview of how to search, locate resources, and use filters to narrow down your search results. 

Using Reference Sources and Journals

Another way to start to explore your topic and get a sense for what other researchers are writing about is to explore Reference Sources and Journals. 

Reference Sources

Reference sources are things like encyclopedias, almanacs, guidebooks and handbooks, and bibliographies. These sources are also sometimes called tertiary sources. These sources summarize key theories and ideas and give you basic background information about a variety of topics. They don't report original resources, but instead synthesize what is known about a subject to give the reader a good foundation of knowledge. 

These kinds of sources can be really helpful if you're researching a subject that's really new to you and you aren't sure where to start. Browsing these sources can give you ideas, and reading about the background of your topic can help you feel more confident as you continue your research. 

Most reference sources are online. Here are a few places you may want to start. 


Another way to get some ideas about what topics researchers in your field are exploring is to scan through recent issues of journals in the field. Looking at the articles that are being published will show you what questions are current and important for researchers and might give you some ideas about where to start. 

You can start exploring all of our journals online at Browzine. Create an account and you can save journals to your bookshelf, and save particular articles that you're interested in reading. 

Some specific subject areas in Browzine that might be good starting places include: